Outlaw King: Better Than Braveheart


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


Robert the Bruce

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

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

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


A modern reconstruction of Bruce’s face

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

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

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

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


Edward II

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

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

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

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


A possible depiction of Aymer de Valence from his tomb

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

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

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

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

Outlaw King

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


Pine’s Bruce is shaggy and brooding throughout the film

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

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

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

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

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


Stephan Dillane as Edward I

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

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

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

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

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


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

Loudoun Hill

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


Loudoun Hill

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

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

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

Other Thoughts

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


Waiting for the dentist to come through town

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

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

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

Want to Know More?

Outlaw King is available on Netflix.

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

The Favourite: Random Thoughts


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


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

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

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


Want to Know More?

The Favourite is available on Amazon now.

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

The Favourite: Was Queen Anne a Lesbian?


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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Anne’s Marriage

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


Queen Anne

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

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

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

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


Prince George of Denmark

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

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


Sarah Churchill

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


George and Anne

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

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

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

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


Enter Abigail

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

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


This portrait may or may not represent Abigail Masham

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

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


When as Queen Anne of great Renown

Great Britain’s scepter sway’d,

Beside the Church, she dearly lov’d

A Dirty Chamber-Maid


O! Abigail that was her name,

She stich’d and starch’d full well,

But how she pierc’d this Royal Heart

No Mortal Man can tell.


However, for sweet Service done

And Causes of great Weight,

Her Royal Mistress made her, Oh!

A Minister of State.


Her Secretary she was not

Because she could not write

But had the Conduct and the Care

Of some dark Deeds at Night.

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


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

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

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

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

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

NPG 3217; Arthur Maynwaring by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt

Arthur Maynwaring

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

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

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

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

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


A coin of Anne’s reign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Want to Know More?

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

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

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

The Favourite: First Thoughts


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


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

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


Olivia Colman as Anne

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

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

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

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


Anne’s Reign

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


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

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

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


Sarah Churchill

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

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

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


The Sources

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


Emma Stone as Abigail Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Want to Know More?

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

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

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

Babylon Berlin: The Black Reichswehr


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

Yes, quite a bit.



The Shadow of the Great War

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

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

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

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


A crowd during the Kapp Putsch

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


The Black Reichswehr

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

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



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

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

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


Ernst Stötzner as Kurt Seegers


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


Want to Know More? 

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

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

Babylon Berlin: Commies!


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In the first season of Babylon Berlin (which on Netflix is just the first 8 episodes), Communists play a fairly prominent role, so I thought I’d spend a post sorting through the complex tangle of Communists, Trotskyites, and White Russians. Understanding Soviet politics isn’t really necessary to enjoy the story, but I think it does help.


Spoiler Alert:If you haven’t watched the first season and intend to, this post is going to give away a couple important plot twists.


Who Was Trotsky?

 In October 1917, the Bolsheviks seized control of Petrograd and established a Soviet, a committee of factory workers and soldiers for the running of the city. Although Vladimir Lenin was the leader of the Bolsheviks, Lenin was not actually in Russia at the time. The coup was substantially orchestrated by Leon Trotsky, one of Lenin’s closest allies. He immediately turned to arranging peace with the Germans and in February of 1918 he finalized the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which took the young Soviet Union out of the Great War, thereby breaking the stalemate that had dominated the war for the past three years. Trotsky was reluctant to actually conclude the Treaty, since he hoped to see a Communist uprising in Germany, but bowed to Lenin’s decision to accept the Treaty. He then took charge of efforts to establish a more functional Red Army.


Leon Trotsky


By 1918, Russia was already embroiled in a civil war. The Soviet Red Army was fighting to establish Lenin’s vision of a fully-Communist Russia. They were opposed by the White Russians, a loose coalition of factions opposed to the Soviets. This group was broadly nationalistic, fighting for a patriotic Russian identity (as opposed to the Soviets, who rejected nationalism as ideology and saw Communism as a literally international movement). They included aristocratic monarchists who wanted a re-establishment of the tsarist government, bourgeois liberals who wanted to establish a democratic republic of some sort, and Karenskyite socialists who wanted a less aggressive form of social democracy. A third faction, the Green Army, represented peasants who advocated for agrarian socialism and resented Bolshevik efforts to requisition supplies but were otherwise non-ideological. This war continued for 4 years, but ultimately Trotsky’s Red Army won the field. He listened to the advice of military specialists, established both concentration camps and compulsory labor camps, and aggressively worked to suppress property owners, all of which contributed to the Soviet triumph. Many Russian aristocrats and intellectuals fled the country by the end of the war.

However, just as the Soviets were achieving dominance, Lenin suffered a series of strokes that left him barealy able to communicate by March of 1922. That created a power vacuum within the Communist Party. Trotsky was the obvious man to succeed Lenin, having engineered both the success of the October Revolution and the victory in the Civil War. However, Josef Stalin used his position as chairman of the Communist Party to pack the party with his own supporters and he built alliances with two other key Bolshevik leaders, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, persuading them that Trotsky was a threat to them. Whereas Trotsky was a revolutionary of burning fervor, Stalin was essentially a pragmatist and therefore a less threatening figure to others in the Party. While Trotsky was eager to export communism to other countries, Stalin was essentially content to use Communism to establish his own power in the Soviet Union. (Such, at least, is the traditional reading of Stalin. I understand that some historians are beginning to reassess that picture of him, but I’m not familiar enough with the scholarship on the issue, so I’m going to go with the traditional picture.) As a result, opposition to Stalin, known as the Left Opposition, congealed around Trotsky (among others).

By the time Lenin died in January of 1924, Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had largely undermined his support within the Party. Zinoviev and Kamenev orchestrated Trotsky’s removal as head of the Red Army a year later. By 1926, Zinoviev and Kamenev had broken with Stalin and sided with Trotsky and the Left Opposition, but by that point Stalin was ascendant. In October of 1927, Stalin expelled Zinoviev and Trotsky from the Communist Party; two months later Kamenev and most of Stalin’s other opponents were evicted as well. Kamenev and Zinoviev submitted to Stalin, but Trotsky refused and was sent into exile in Kazakhstan in 1928. In February of 1929, he was exiled to Turkey, where he remained until 1933, when France agreed to grant him asylum. In 1935, he was forced to relocate to Norway. A year later, Stalin put Zinoviev and Kamenev on trial, along with Trotsky in absentia, and found them all guilty of plotting to kill him. Zinoviev and Kamenev were executed, but Trotsky remained a thorn in Stalin’s side, writing copiously against him even after being forced to relocate to Mexico City. Stalin made at least three attempts to have Trotsky killed. The third attempt finally succeeded when Spanish Communist Ramón Mercader wounded him severely with an ice axe (not an ice pick, as is commonly reported).


Trotsky and Kamenev at Brest-Litovsk


By 1930, Trotsky had founded the International Left Opposition to oppose Stalin within the Communist Party, but by 1933, it had become clear that Stalin had complete control over the Party, so the ILO evolved into an organization that operated outside the Soviet Union. In 1938, its members founded the Fourth International in Paris to foment what they considered true Communist revolution.


Babylon Berlin’s Trotskyites

The first episode shows a conspiracy to smuggle of a trainload of phosgene gas from the Soviet Union into Germany. Unbeknownst to the people who smuggling the gas, a group of Trotskyite rebels in the Soviet Union have attached a single train-car filled with gold bars to that train. The Trotskyite leader in Berlin, Alexei Kardakhov (Ivan Shvedoff) wants to get his hand on that gold to send it to Istanbul to help fund Leon Trotsky’s struggle against Josef Stalin. That gold is the fortune of a dead White Russian whose daughter, Countess Svetlana Sorokina (Severija Janusauskaité), is working with Kardakhov. He thinks she’s a loyal Trotskyite, but actually, she’s just using the Trotskyites to get the gold out of Russia for her own purposes. The phosgene and the gold act as MacGuffins throughout the first two seasons.


The treacherous Svetlana


As soon as the train arrives in Berlin, Svetlana contacts the Soviet ambassador and rats out the Trotskyites. The ambassador sends a couple of thugs to their hideout, where they are running an underground printing press, and massacres everyone except Kardakhov, who survives by hiding in a latrine. He spends the rest of the season on the run, desperately trying to find a safe hiding place, not realizing that Svetlana has sold him out until it’s too late.

The show makes little effort to delve into the quarrel between Stalin and Lenin. That’s fair, since the gold is simply a MacGuffin and not really a key issue in the show’s plot, and even the Trotskyites other than Kardakhov are gone after the third episode. But as this blog points out, the show’s depiction of the Trotskyites and the Communists in general is rather backward. The only hint of their ideology is Kardakhov’s statement that he wants to save his country. So the show seems to think that Trotskyism is about the Soviet Union. But as we’ve seen, Trotsky was deeply concerned about fostering Communist revolution across Europe, whereas Stalin was largely disinterested in spreading communism outside the Soviet Union.

One of Stalin’s strategies for sidelining the original Bolshevik true believers in the later 1920s was to appoint them as ambassadors to other countries. That got them out of the Soviet Union, which reduced their ability to influence developments in the key Soviet institutions (like the Communist Party). For much of the 1920s, the Soviet ambassador to Germany was Nikolay Krestinsky, who was one of Trotsky’s supporters until 1927. I’m not clear whether he was still in that post in 1929, when the first season occurs. In the show, the ambassador is the fictitious Col. Trochin (Denis Burgazliev), who appears to be a loyal Stalinist. It seems a bit improbable that the Communists could have pulled off a bigger slaughter than the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago and then smuggle all the corpses out of the city without anyone noticing.


The soon-to-be-liquidated Trotskyites


In fairness to the show, the Trotskyites are trying to foster a revolution in Berlin with their underground pamphlets. They are printing pamphlets encouraging Berlin workers to support a Communist rally on May 1stin favor of the Fourth International. Since the Fourth International isn’t even a concept in 1929, the show’s gotten its timeline wrong.


The Bloody May Incident

The show does a better job with its depiction of what became known as Blutmai, the Bloody May Incident. Leftist thought in Germany in the 1920s was broadly represented by two different political parties. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had formed in the 1860s was a Socialist party focused on the rights of factory workers. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was an explicitly Communist party founded in December of 1918 after the suppression of the Spartacist uprising. Its founders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, had split from the SPD, which they came to regard as their archenemy. The SPD enjoyed considerable electoral success during the 1920s and was able to implement a range of legislation including welfare laws, veterans’ assistance, and regulation of working conditions. In Berlin, the SPD controlled the police force because one of their members, Karl Zörgiebel, was the police chief.

In contrast, the KDP was by the mid-1920s a pro-Stalinist organization and advocated for Communism fairly effectively. It too performed well at the polls, generally getting about 10% of votes. It maintained a paramilitary organization, the Rotfront, to protect KPD meetings from violence by the police and the Nazi Sturm Abteilung (the infamous SA or ‘brown shirts’). But because of its rivalry with the SPD, the two left-leaning parties were generally unable to organize a common opposition to the emerging Nazi Party.

In 1928, Zörgiebel banned public demonstrations in Berlin as a threat to public safety, since political demonstrations were usually accompanied by violence on the part of the Rotfront, the SA, or both. However, the KPD perceived this ban as an attempt by Zörgiebel to weaken the KPD, which was making electoral gains in the city. The KPD’s two major leaders, Walter Ulbrich and Ernst Thälmann, called for a major protest on May Day, the international Socialist/Communist holiday. They informed the police of their intended parade routes and rallying points, perhaps hoping for a confrontation that would give them grounds to push for a repeal of the ban on demonstrations.


A KDP poster promoting the protest


However, when May 1st rolled around, most of the unions opted for demonstrations and rallies within their factories. Zörgiebel’s police kept an eye on the protestors, but comparatively little happened beyond the dispersal of a few parades until late in the day when the factory workers left the factories. The police, eager for a fight, waded in with truncheons and brawls broke out. The police retaliated with water cannons.

The conflict escalated on May 2nd as workers erected barricades and the police began going door-to-door in working-class neighborhoods, arresting supposed troublemakers. The police responded to the barricades by sending in men with machine guns and armored vehicles, and running gun-battles ensued. When the smoke finally cleared on the 3rd, 33 people were dead (none of them police) and 200 injured. Zörgiebel sought to depict the workers as the cause of the violence, but the evidence points to the police as the ones who brought most of the guns. The government banned the Rotfront and the rift between the SPD and the KPD became permanent. The violence, which was perceived to be between the two left-wing parties, give Hitler fuel for his argument that the Communists were a threat to social order.


People fleeing the violence during the riot


In the show, the police are prepared for the protest with a speech by Zörgiebel (I think) about the need to prevent anarchy. The protest takes the form of an enormous parade complete with Soviet flags and chants of “Berlin stays red!” The police are armed with truncheons. As the police march toward the parade, one of the protestors throws a rock and a large riot ensues in which the police are shown as being the real aggressors. Gereon (Volker Bruch) and his partner Bruno (Peter Kurth) are assigned to search nearby apartments for illegal firearms. They are shown breaking into apartments and tossing them indiscriminately for weapons, finding only one 18thcentury musket.


The protest in the show


But then they stumble across barricades and are forced to take cover in a doorway as an armored car drives down the street firing indiscriminately. A group of protestors unfurl a large red flag from a third floor balcony and the police accidentally shoot two women standing on the second floor balcony just below it. Gereon rushes into the women’s apartment and after finding the women badly wounded, he goes to find a doctor, Dr Völcker (Jördis Triebel), who turns out to be a fiery Communist agitator. But it’s too late to save the women, both of whom die from their wounds. In later episodes, Dr Völcker leads protests about the violence, depicting the women as martyrs of police brutality and accusing the police of orchestrating a cover-up.

The police, desperate to point the finger at the protestors, find a police office who happens to have been accidentally shot in a completely unrelated incident and put him forward as proof that the protestors were seeking to kill police. Gereon eventually realizes this is untrue.


Just before the violence begins


The show’s depiction of the Bloody May Incident is essentially true, although it collapses three days of protests into a single day. I’m unsure whether the incident with the two women actually happened, and Dr Völcker is fictitious. I also don’t know if the details about the fake police victim of violence is true. But the show is correct that the worst violence came from the police, that they were indiscriminately searching apartments but failed to find much evidence of an armed plot, and that they were widely perceived as the aggressors and as covering up what actually happened.

In general, the show does a fair job of trying to capture the instability, tension, and violence that was coming to characterize Berlin in the late 20s. The Communists are a clear presence in the series and ever-present poverty helps the viewer understand why Communism was a popular ideology at the time. But the show makes only token efforts to explain actual Socialist and Communist ideology, assuming that the viewer will either understand the essential ideas or else not care about them too much. The Communists are generally presented sympathetically, especially Dr Völcker, who is one of the few characters who doesn’t seem to have a hidden agenda.

The show only provides glimpses at the bigger political picture around the events. There is no mention of the SDP at all, so the police appear to be representatives not of the Socialist movement but of the capitalist establishment. More seriously, the Nazis don’t appear until late in the second season and the viewer would be forgiven for thinking that Hitler hadn’t yet emerged as a political force in German politics. In reality, Hitler was a rising force by 1928 and the SA were a major factor in the street violence of the period.



Want to Know More?

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

Babylon Berlin: Introducing the Weimar Republic


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Sorry I’ve been so long in updating this blog. The past couple of months have been hellishly busy with grading work. I’ve barely had time to get my work done, much less write any blog posts. But I’ve finally gotten through most of the grading and found time to start in on a show I’ve been working my way through, Babylon Berlin (German, with English subtitles), which one of my loyal readers has paid me generously to review.


Babylon Berlin is a 2017 tv production for German tv (reportedly the most expensive television show ever produced in Germany, and I can well believe it), based on a series of novels by Volker Kutscher. It is set in Germany in 1929, a period ripe with change, corruption, and conflict.

The main character, Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) is a vice cop in Cologne who is sent to Berlin to track down a pornographic film that is being used to blackmail an important politician. A veteran of the Great War, Rath struggles with PTSD and is a morphine addict. He’s also in love with the wife of his brother, who has been missing in action since the end of the war but is not yet legally dead. In Berlin, as he searches for the film, he gets caught up in a conspiracy involving a Trotskyite underground press, a train-load of illegal phosgene gas, a cross-dressing cabaret singer, a shady vice cop of uncertain allegiance, a drug-addled pornographer, a group of Nationalist military officers, and a train car packed with Russian gold.

Gereon also befriends a bright young police clerk named Charlotte (Liv Lisa Fries) who moonlights as a prostitute and aspires to become a homicide detective and who slowly becomes his chief ally as he gets drawn further into the seedy side of Berlin. The show has a sprawling cast of morally-ambiguous characters: Communist workers, Armenian mobsters, homosexuals, Soviet diplomats, industrialists, and war veterans. Everyone has divided loyalties or a scheme they’re running, or a dirty secret to keep hidden. And over the whole thing hang two shadows, the long shadow of the Great War and the faint but looming shadow of the Third Reich.


The Weimar Republic

The Weimar Republic is the name given by scholars to Germany’s interwar democratic government, whose constitution was written in the city of Weimar. Prior to the Great War, the German government was a nominally democratic state but functionally one with a highly autocratic monarchy. Shortly before the end of the war, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and three months later in February of 1919, the Weimar constitution took effect, marking Germany’s first experiment with genuine democracy.

Unfortunately, the Weimar Republic was saddled with enormous problems. It had just lost the worst war in human history, suffering a staggering 1.77 million dead and 4.2 million wounded; of men between the ages of 15 and 38, 13% died during the war. The economy had been stretched to the breaking point by the war, and in defeat, things got worse. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war for Germany, imposed harsh annual reparations payments to France and Great Britain that hamstrung the young republic’s economy. In the period from 1919 to the end of 1923, the German Mark collapsed because the government was forced to constantly print new money. The result was hyperinflation, a situation in which prices inflate (or, seen from the opposite viewpoint, the value of the currency falls) on an hourly basis. In 1919, 1 US Dollar could purchase 4.2 Marks; in August of 1923, it could purchase 1 million Marks. This disaster destroyed people’s savings almost overnight and in places the economy reverted to barter. By 1923, the government had managed to bring inflation under control by scraping the old Mark and introducing a new one, the Rentenmark. But the damage had already been done. The Middle Class was traumatized and fearful.


Marks being used as fuel for a furnace


In the period after 1923, the economy began to recover, at least nominally, and by 1928, unemployment stood at a reasonable 6-7%. But by 1929 (when the Great Depression set in in the US), it had risen to 10% and was to climb to 30% by 1932, creating the economy crisis that allowed Adolf Hitler to rise to power.

The political situation was also unstable. It proven impossible to establish a long-lasting and stable governing party, and chancellors rose and fell repeatedly, few of them lasting more than two years. Many Germans distrusted their new government, which had been created out of the failure of Kaiser Wilhelm’s government, and many suspected that it had somehow been responsible for Germany’s defeat in the war. Starting in 1930, the President, Paul von Hindenburg, was forced to govern by emergency decree, undermining the government’s legitimacy and paving the way for Hitler’s rule.

This was also an era of plots and attempted coups. In December of 1918, the Spartacus League, a Communist organization, launched an uprising in Berlin that triggered smaller revolts across the country, but it was quickly suppressed by the army. In 1920, the right-wing Kapp Putsch sought to overthrow the Republic and establish a military government, but it collapsed in just four days after a general strike broke out. In 1923, Hitler and General Ludendorff attempted to seize control of the Bavarian government in the Beer Hall Putsch, but Bavarian authorities suppressed it and sent Hitler to jail for a year. After that, things stabilized, but agitation by both right-wing Nationalists, who were a powerful faction within and around the military and left-wing Communists, who were powerful among the factory workers and intelligentsia, continued to agitate and challenge the government in a variety of ways. The Bolshevik Revolution had just happened in Russia, and many felt that there was a very real chance that Communism might establish itself in Germany, while Nationalists dreamed of undoing Germany’s humiliation.

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A German Communist poster from the period


But the instability also offered room for society to transform in other ways. Women enjoyed far greater rights than they had a decade ago and a large percentage of them had joined the workforce, either willingly or as a result of the economic problems of the period. There was a strong air of sexual liberation, especially in the big cities like Berlin, and many women turned to prostitution or other forms of sexualized entertainment out of financial necessity. There was a growing acknowledgement of homosexuality, and it was widely tolerated at least within Berlin underworld. Foreign culture was becoming popular, especially American jazz; the black American dancer Josephine Baker was revered in Berlin. German culture entered into a short-lived cultural flowering that produced masterpieces such as the expressionist cinema of Nosferatuand the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the irrational work of Dadaist artists like Hannah Hoch and its Surrealist successors such as Max Ernst, and the architectural style of Bauhaus, which was founded in Weimar in 1919. But this new openness to foreign culture was scary to many, and fed into Nationalism, which promised to ‘restore proper values’ and ‘return women to the home’.


Marlene Dietrich captures the sense of new opportunities in Weimar-era Germany


Babylon Berlin

The show makes excellent use of its setting. There are extensive scenes filmed outside existing Weimar-era buildings (although many key locations, such as the Berlin Police Headquarters, were destroyed during World War II). The show also constructed a massive backlot set used to represent a variety of neighborhoods around Berlin, including the exterior of the Moka Efti nightclub, a major location in the show. There are a lot of nice touches, such as the fact that the Police Headquarters uses a paternoster elevator system, which were popular in Germany at the time (and still are, to some extent). The show’s art and set direction are also quite good. There are numerous posters in a 20s style advertising musical acts and the like. The Art Deco Moka Efti club really captures something of the style of the period.


Bruch as Gereon Rath

The show definitely explores the influence of jazz in German culture. Gereon and Charlotte both love to dance and there are numerous scenes set in various bars and night clubs where the more free style of 1920s dance is demonstrate. No fusty old waltzes for the libidinous Berliners of the era. (One false note is the lack of the black performers who helped bring jazz to Germany, although Josephine Baker’s famous banana skirt is referenced.) Kurt Weil’s Threepenny Opera plays an important role in one episode.

A particularly memorable scene involves the singer Nikoros performing what is essentially the show’s theme song, “Zu Asche Zu Staub” at Moka Efti. The song’s lyrics are both hopeful and ominous and manage to capture the desperate optimism that was so widespread after the Great War. Like everyone else in the show, Nikoros has something to hide. Give it a watch (be advised, the dancers’ costumes border on NSFW). Brian Ferry also cameos in one episode as a singer.

But the show doesn’t exactly glamorize 20s Berlin. The pall of the Great War hangs over these characters. Gereon is haunted by his inability to rescue his brother during the war and his barely-managed PTSD is a major plotline in the show. One of the minor supporting characters is a doctor of psychology who is exploring the potential use of hypnosis to address PTSD, a condition that many people deride as mere cowardice and fakery. Men with missing limbs periodically appear in the background of various scenes, usually begging. Gereon’s partner Wolter (Peter Kurth) is part of a group of soldiers who resent German’s loss in the war and commemorate the dead as heroes, unable to draw the lessons about why Germany lost the war. Gereon’s landlady is a lonely young war widow.

Poverty is ever-present in this show. Charlotte’s family is quite poor; she lives with her mother, grandfather, two sisters, brother-in-law, another man whose relationship to the family I missed, and an infant nephew in what is essentially a two-room apartment. The family’s poverty is part of the reason she works on the side as a prostitute. At the Police Headquarters there is always a pack of young women looking for temporary work as clerks and the like. Charlotte’s old friend Greta (Leonie Benesch) is out of work and homeless when she bumps into Charlotte, who offers her work as a prostitute. This poverty helps the viewer understand the emergence of both Communist and Nationalist agitation as well as the thriving criminal underworld. Most of the characters seem aware that they are lucky to have jobs.


Fries as Charlotte Ritter


In my next post on the show, I’ll look into the Communist movement in more detail.

Want to Know More?

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

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

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Let’s Just Fake a Quote


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So I don’t mind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, dir. Steven Spielberg). It’s a pretty fun movie that captures some of the spirit of the first movie and avoids everything that’s awful about the second one. But there is one brief moment in it that drives me crazy, like a raspberry seed between my teeth.


Partway through the film, Indiana (Harrison Ford) and his father Henry (Sean Connery) are trying to escape from some Nazi airplanes in a car. The car gets bombed and they’re trapped on a beach with a bunch of birds. Daddy Jones suddenly charges at a bunch of sea gulls flapping his umbrella. The startled gulls take off and the airplane flies through them and crashes. And then Henry says “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne. ‘Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds of the sky.’ “

Here’s the scene, if you need a reminder. The quote comes at the 1:45 mark.

What I hate about this scene is that the quote is entirely made up. It doesn’t derive from any actual source about Charlemagne. Jones Senior talks about “my Charlemagne” implying that he has studied Charlemagne’s writings, the way one might talk about “my Vergil” or “my Chaucer”.

But Charlemagne never wrote anything. It’s not just a case that nothing he wrote has survived, he actually didn’t write any texts because we know from his main biographer Einhard although Charlemagne tried to learn to write as an adult, he was never able to do so. To quote Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, “He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.” Charlemagne was a smart guy and quite learned in some subjects, thanks to the intellectuals at his court, but he never acquired the ability to write.

We do have the text of laws and letters written in his name, but it’s unlikely that he directly composed much of that, although in some cases a scribe might have taken dictation from him. But even so, his writing isn’t given to flights of poetry like talking about rocks and trees and birds as his armies.


A bust of Charlemagne

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Versailles: The Affair of the Poisons


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The second season of Versailles covers is sort of inspired by the Affair of the Poisons, one of the most dramatic set of events in the reign of Louis XIV. Normally I don’t cover more than one season of a show, but I’m going to break that rule because it gives me an excuse to write about the Affair.


The first episode of the second season introduces us to Madame Agathe (Suzanne Clément) a close confident of Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster). Initially she seems to be just a fortune teller, but as the season goes on, it’s clear that she’s also a poisoner responsible for supplying poisons to a variety of people at the court, including Sophie (Maddison Jaizani), who slowly poisons her husband, and Gaston de Foix (Harry Hadden-Paton) who apparently murders several people, including one of Louis’ ministers, the man’s wife, and the queen’s favorite clergyman. Montespan, struggling to hold Louis’ affections, even turns to an associate of Agathe’s for a black mass that she hopes will rekindle the spark Louis had for her. It’s eventually revealed that Agathe is hoping to trigger Louis’ overthrow for reasons I couldn’t follow. The season ends with Sophie safely widowed, Gaston dead, Montespan in disgrace, and Agathe burning at the stake.

As we’ll see, that bears only the faintest resemblance to what actually happened.

The Prologue

In 1666, the groundwork for the Affair of the Poisons was laid by the scandalous revelations around Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, a dissolute young noblewoman. Both she and her husband Antoine enjoyed gambling and they maintained an open relationship, with Antoine actively introducing her to her lover, Captain Godin de St-Croix. As a result of their extravagant lifestyle, the couple found themselves in need of money. The Marquise fell out with her family, who objected to her affair with St-Croix and arranged for him to be thrown into the Bastille. This put St-Croix in contact with a poisoner who taught him a great deal. St-Croix then got into contact with a Swiss chemist who worked with him for three years to perfect a recipe for Acqua Toffana, an arsenic-based poison that was odorless and tasteless. While they were perfecting the formula, the Marquise was regularly visiting a charity hospital and feeding the residents pastries laced with the poison to observe its effects.


The Marquise de Brinvilliers

So in 1666, having working out how to poison people, the Marquise allegedly began applying her knowledge. She placed a servant in her father’s household who spent six months poisoning her father so the Marquise could inherit part of his estate. As her father sickened, the Marquise played the dutiful daughter, tending to him and giving him the final dose. This allowed his estate to be split between the Marquise, a sister, and two brothers.

Then she decided she wanted to be rid of her husband, so that she could marry St-Croix. So she started to poison Antoine. But St-Croix had recently married and felt better having Antoine around, so he began to slip Antoine the antidote. At least, this is the rumor that was going around to explain why Antoine went through 5 or 6 health crises in the later 1660s. Eventually Marie gave up and let him live. But she allegedly tried to poison her sister, a Carmelite nun, and her own daughter, both of whom survived.

By 1668, the creditors were pressing the Marquise quite aggressively, so she decided she needed to inherit some money. She paid St-Croix (who was no longer providing her his services for free) to place a servant in her brother Antoine’s household, and by 1670 he was dead. A few months later her other brother similarly departed this world. Marie split their estates with her sister.

Unfortunately, in 1672, St-Croix died, reportedly by accidentally poisoning himself, and the Paris police came into possession of a bunch of letters and diaries detailing the Marquise’ activities. She fled the country, but in 1675 she was arrested. She produced a 16-page confession of her crimes, but then recanted and insisted vehemently that she was innocent. A confessor eventually persuaded her to recant her recantation. She made a full confession and was publicly beheaded and her body burnt.

The Affair Begins

The scandal around Marie’s confession and execution made people begin paying more attention to what in retrospect seemed like suspicious deaths. Marie had hinted broadly that she was far from the only person at court who had poisoned someone, but she refused to name names.

In 1677, the Paris police arrested Magdelaine Guénisseau and her lover on charges that they had murdered her employer and forged evidence that she had been married to him, so that they could inherit his property. Magdelaine appealed to one of Louis’ ministers, the Marquis de Louvois, who reported it to Louis, who told him and Gabriel Nicholas de La Reynie, the chief of the Paris police, to investigate. (Louvois is a regular character on Versailles, and La Reynie is the loose inspiration for Fabien Marchal).


La Reynie

La Reynie investigated and uncovered a loose network of alchemists, counterfeiters, and poisoners operating around Paris and having ties to various nobles. He found evidence of a plot to poison the king, but was unable to determine who might be behind it. Then he managed to apprehend two women, Marie Vigoureux and Marie Bosse, who seemed to be at the center of this network. La Bosse had boasted that with three more poisonings she would be able to retire comfortably. Although La Bosse insisted she only did palm readings and dabbled in love potions, a search of her apartment turned up arsenic, Spanish fly, powdered menstrual blood, and nail clippings. That evidence caused La Bosse and La Vigoureux to break down and implicate a wide range of people including midwives, abortionists (or ‘angel makers’ as they were sometimes called), sorceresses, a ‘toad vendor’, an herbalist, and several renegade priests. La Bosse admitted that she had sold soap impregnated with arsenic and ‘inheritance powders’ (as many of the poisons were euphemistically called) to a noblewoman who was trying to get rid of her husband.

Then in 1679, as La Reynie’s investigation widened, he reeled in an even bigger fish, Catherine Monvoisin, known generally as La Voisin, who is the inspiration for Madame Agathe. She was a palm reader, alchemist, and abortionist whose clients included Olympe Mancini and her sister Marie, two of Louis’ early mistresses (that link discusses Louis’ mistresses, several of whom will be mentioned below). She had become wealthy enough that she moved freely at the top levels of Parisian society and frequently threw impressive parties. She sold love potions and magical amulets and arranged black masses for her clients as well. She also dabbled in poisoning, although it was not her main stock in trade and she was reportedly much less-well versed in it than others in her circle. Most importantly, she was in contact with two of Louis’ current mistresses, Madame de Montespan and Montespan’s servant Claude de Vin des Oeillets.


La Voisin

The Black Masses

In 1667, La Voisin arranged a black mass for Montespan, the same year that Montespan became maitress en titre.Montespan paid for several more black masses a few years later in 1673, when Louis’ eye began to wander, and she also purchased an aphrodisiac that she gave to Louis.

Paris had a thriving underworld of renegade priests in this period. These were men who had clerical training and ordination, but often did not have any sort of clerical position with which to support themselves (or else they regarded their regular income as priests to be insufficient). One way that these men supported themselves was by performing illicit rituals that drew on the power of Catholic rituals for unsanctioned purposes. They administered fake Masses using unconsecrated hosts for patrons who needed to be seen taking communion but who were unwilling to make the required confession beforehand. They supplied chalices, crucifixes, holy water, holy oil, and consecrated hosts for a wide range of supernatural purposes such as love spells, rituals to protect livestock from disease and wolves, and rituals to communicate with the dead or demons. Etienne Guibourg (the inspiration for Father Etienne in the show) frequently performed a ritual in which he wrote the names of a client and an intended target on the host, then consecrated the host during a regular Mass at his church. He would afterward give the special host to the client with instructions to grind it into powder and mix it into the target’s food. This was supposed to cause the target to fall in love with the client. Another love spell at the time involved a priest blessing a pair of rings and going through a parody of a marriage Mass for the client; this was supposed to ‘marry’ the target in absentia to the client.

What it casually called a Black Mass is actually, in this case, an Amatory Mass. A Black Mass is a form of Satan-worship that parodies the Catholic liturgy for malicious purposes. What Guibourg and others performed was not intended to subvert the Mass but rather to harness its power for magical ends; in the case of an Amatory Mass, the goal was to cause someone to fall in love with the client. Thus although to the Catholic hierarchy the Amatory Mass looked profoundly disrespectful to Catholic belief, to men like Guibourg the ritual was actually expressing a strange sort of respect for the Mass; they believed in the Mass’ power to achieve magical things.


A modern artist’s drawing of Guibourg performing an Amatory Mass

Trigger Warning: the following two paragraphs get rather gruesome. If you’re easily disturbed, skip down to the paragraph that begins “In 1678”.

Guibourg’s Amatory Masses involved using the body of a naked woman as the altar for the Mass; a cloth was placed over her belly and a cross and other implements were placed on the cloth, along with a note describing the client’s desires. The women in question was ideally the client, but did not have to be. Guibourg then performed a standard Mass except that when he elevated the host he read aloud the note along with an invocation to the demons Asmodeus and Astaroth. He then slit the throat of a newborn baby, poured its blood into the chalice, and cut out its heart, which was place in a vase with the consecrated host. He completed the ritual by having sex with the woman. Needless to say, an Amatory Mass was not only deeply sacrilegious, it was also profoundly illegal.

La Voisin was said to procure the babies from prostitutes. She reportedly disposed of the corpses of the babies by burning them in an oven and then burying them in her garden. Several witnesses claimed that she had bragged about disposing of 2,500 infants that way. (One sometimes reads that authorities dug up thousands of corpses from her garden, but that seems to be untrue.)

The Scandal Explodes

In 1678, when Louis became infatuated with Marie-Angélique de Scorailles, Montespan supposedly asked La Voisin to poison both Louis and de Scorailles. La Voisin reportedly tried to pass Louis a petition impregnated with poison, but was unable to do so. Before she could formulate a second plan, La Reynie caught up with her. La Bosse and La Voisin began accusing each other of increasingly severe crimes, implicating a substantial number of France’s lesser nobility in buying inheritance powders and procuring abortions.


One of Louis’ last mistresses, Marie Angélique de Scorailles

Another of their associates, Adam Coeuret, better known as the sorcerer Lesage, got picked up and began trying to save his neck by accusing La Voisin of having orchestrated Black Masses. She accused Lesage of helping her procure poisons, and Lesage retaliated by revealing the work she had done for Montespan. Lesage also accused the duc de Luxembourg, who was the captain of the king’s guards, of trying to arrange the murders of his own wife and Louvois’ son-in-law so that he could marry Louvois’ daughter. This revelation delighted Louvois because he hated Luxembourg and wanted to ruin him. Even more remarkably, Lesage produced a letter from the duc implicating him.

By this point, the accusations Lesage was making were so inflammatory (since Montespan was not only Louis’ official mistress but the mother of several of his acknowledged children) that Louis ordered La Reynie to keep a completely separate unofficial transcript of Lesage’s claims. Fortunately for modern historians, La Reynie’s records both official and unofficial survive for us to reconstruct the events.

La Voisin’s daughter, Marie-Marguerite, testified that she had frequently witnessed her mother and Lesage performing magical rituals, including baptizing wax figurines, making amulets involving pigeon’s hearts and consecrated hosts, and burning a piece of wood as part of a love spell to secure his love for Montespan. Pressed further, she spilled the beans about the poisoned petition. She also testified that she had personally attended two Black Masses that Montespan had participated in.

La Voisin denied these charges, but it didn’t convince anyone. The scandal had become too big and too widely known for it be swept under the rug, especially when the Marquise de Brinvilliers had primed people to think there were an epidemic of poisoning going on. La Reynie identified a total of 442 suspects, 212 of whom were arrested and questioned. Several suspects, include La Vigoureux, died under torture, and 36 people were publicly executed (generally by burning), including La Voisin and La Bosse. La Voisin’s daughter, Guibourg, and Lesage were sentenced to perpetual imprisonment; two other priests were executed.

Of their known clients, a good number fled France to avoid imprisonment or were sentenced to exile for varying periods. Olympe Mancini (who was suspected of poisoning her husband) was exiled and her sister Marie was banished from court. A few were executed, and a couple were fined. Luxembourg spent a short period in the Bastille but managed to return to Louis’ good graces. Most importantly of all, Madame de Montespan was never touched. When des Scorailles died suddenly in 1681, many thought that Montespan had poisoned her. But she was never publically accused of any crime. La Reynie kept his investigation into her role completely under wraps, and it’s possible that even Montespan did not know she was being investigated.

Madame de Montespan was too prominent a figure at the court for anyone to make an open accusation against her. Although the evidence that she was procuring love potions and Amatory Masses is pretty solid, the evidence that she was trying to poison the king is shakier. There are inconsistencies in the testimony against her. La Reynie thought that des Oeillets, Montespan’s go-between with La Voisin, was the real culprit. He suspected that she wanted to poison Louis because the king had refused to acknowledge his daughter by her. He theorized that she had switched some of the love potions Montespan was buying from La Voisin for arsenic. And she was Montespan’s stand-in during the Amatory Masses. So Louis either didn’t believe the poisoning accusations or he allowed her to go unpunished out of a combination of affection for her and concern about how the scandal would look. By 1683, she was out of favor, but remained at court for almost another decade before retiring to a convent in 1691.


Claude de Vin des Oeillets

Back to Versailles

So let’s take stock of how Versailles depicts this material.

Yes, Agathe/La Voisin provided fortune-telling and love potions for Montespan. No she didn’t use tarot cards. She was a palm-reader.

No, Agathe/La Voisin did not provide poisons to Sophie or Gaston de Foix, because both of those characters are fictitious. But she or an associate certainly provided poisons to women looking to dispose of unwanted husbands. Yes, she sold love charms.


Gaston scheming with Agathe

Yes, Agathe/La Voisin may have conspired to poison the king. No, it wasn’t because she hated the king or wanted to overthrow the government. No, Louis wasn’t almost poisoned with a consecrated host and wasn’t saved at the last moment, but yes, it’s possible that he was given arsenic at some point (if so, it would have been by Montespan, thinking it was a love potion). No, this wasn’t just Agathe/La Voisin and Father Etienne/Etienne Guibourg; it was dozens and dozens of people involved in various capacities.

No, one of Louis’ ministers and his wife were not poisoned. The Affair never reached quite that high up the food chain at Versailles. And no, so far as we know, none of the poisonings were directly about politics. They were about inheritances and a desire to end unwanted marriages.

Yes, Father Etienne/Etienne Guibourg did perform sacrilegious Masses over the body of a naked woman, and yes, those Masses did involve the killing of babies. Yes, Montespan had such Masses performed for her, but no, she didn’t act as the altar and may not have even attended them. Yes, Father Etienne/Etienne Guibourg may have used prostitutes’ babies for the ritual, but no, he wasn’t the one collecting them (unless La Voisin was making things up, which isn’t impossible). No, one of the masses was not broken up by Marchal/La Reynie. No, Marchal/La Reynie did not almost die trying to stop the poisoning.

No, no one at court took fast-acting poison when they were about to be exposed, and no, a priest was not poisoned with a lily. No, the poisons didn’t cause people to vomit blood and die quickly.

Yes, Montespan was desperate to keep Louis’ affections. No, she and Agathe/La Voisin did not have regular meetings to discuss her situation. She used her lady-in-waiting Claude des Oeillets as the go-between.


Montespan meeting with Agathe

My verdict is that the second season is only VERY loosely inspired by the actual Affair of the Poisons, which was way more complex and, to me at least, interesting than what the show offers us. Still, it’s nice to see the Affair referenced so much. It’s a fascinating event.

Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

My favorite book on the The Affair of the Poisons is Lynn Wood Mollenauer’s Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s FranceIt’s an excellent look at the Affair from several different angles, including the occult underworld. Mollenauer has a lively, surprisingly humorous style, a rarity for an academic work like this.


Versailles: Poison!


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The second season of Versailles focuses heavily on the Affair of the Poisons, and a good number of people get poisoned in the show, so I thought I would spend a post discussing the show’s treatment of poisoning before I actually discuss how well the show captures the Affair.


In the show, a whole lot of people get poisoned. Henrietta (Noémie Schmidt) gets offed at the end of the first season, as does the female physician Claudine’s father partway through the season, and in the second season, there are a bunch of victims, including one of Louis’ ministers and the minister’s wife and the obnoxious Father Pascal (James Joint). Cassel (Pip Torrens) is poisoned by his wife Sophie (Maddison Jaizani). It’s all the work of Madame Agathe (Suzanne Clément), a fortune-teller and seller of love potions and poisons who hates Louis and is somehow planning to collapse his government by poisoning people.

With the exception of Cassel, the poisonings all basically present the same visually dramatic symptom; one consumes poison and sometime later one feels unwell and immediately begins to vomit blood and then die. In Henrietta’s case, there’s prolonged abdominal discomfort and time for a lengthy goodbye, but mostly death comes pretty quickly once symptoms present.


Henrietta expiring

While that makes for interesting television, it’s pretty wildly inaccurate. I’ve already discussed three common poisons used in the Early Modern period: antimony, mercury, and acqua toffana (a mixture of arsenic and lead). Another window into the Early Modern poisoner’s toolkit is the so-called Assassin’s Cabinet, a small chest of poisons designed to look like a book (although it’s been argued that it might actually be an apothecary’s chest, since all of the substances in it had legitimate medical uses at the time). The chest contained drawers for 11 substances, all of which are poisonous in the proper concentrations: henbane, opium poppy, wolfsbane (aconite, monkshood), cowbane (water hemlock), mandrake, jimson weed, valerian, spurge laurel, castor oil plant, meadow saffron, and deadly nightshade (belladonna).


The Assassin’s Cabinet

(As an aside, in the show, when Madame Agathe’s rooms are being searched one of the guards holds up something that strongly resembles the Assassin’s Cabinet. Props to them for doing some research!)

None of these substances have symptoms anything like the poison used on Versailles. For example, henbane poisoning causes hallucinations, confusion, restlessness, flushed skin, convulsions and loss of coordination, fever, and vomiting. Wolfsbane is a contact poison that causes respiratory problems, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, convulsions, paralysis, and confusion. Jimson weed causes nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, high blood pressure, rapid pulse, extreme thirst, convulsions, hallucination, headache, and coma. I could go on, but you get the point. So far as I can tell, none of these substances causes the victim to vomit blood, just regular vomit. I haven’t been able to find an historical poison that has as its primary symptom vomiting blood. (Honest, FBI, it’s all research for this blog!) So the show’s poison is basically fantasy poison.

But the show gets something much more wrong than just making up a poison. A poison with symptoms like the one Agathe sells wouldn’t have been a very popular poison for one important reason. It’s too obvious that the victim has been murdered.

To appreciate this, you have to reflect on the poor state of medical knowledge in the pre-Modern world. There were many things that could cause people to die suddenly: heart attack, stroke, aneurism, aortic dissection, appendicitis, various infections, and food poisoning could all cause an apparently healthy person to rapidly decline and die. As a result, anytime some died suddenly in apparently good health, there were always rumors that the person had been poisoned, because the true cause of death could often not be identified by physicians. As a result, I’m always very skeptical of claims that historical figures were poisoned. Sudden death always raised suspicions. If you’re a poisoner, you generally don’t want to raise suspicion. You want the death to appear natural. If you want to be blatant, you usually used other tools, like knives, because you were more certain of hitting the intended target.

So poison was mostly used by people who wanted the death to look natural or to mimic the symptoms of a disease. That’s how Sophie kills Cassel—with a poison that causes him to slowly sicken and decline. The primary symptom is coughing a lot and general weakness. That’s how poisons like antimony and acqua toffana operated. They required repeated doses administered over a period of time and they made the victim appear to slowly sicken from organ failure or other natural causes. That way the victim died and everyone thought that he or she had just died in the normal course of events.



In fact, we know a fair amount about the poisons used during the Affair of the Poisons. Arsenic was probably the most popular, because its symptoms resembled dysentery: organ failure, inflammation of the throat and intestines, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, confusion, and coma. One poisoner, Marie Bosse, impregnated the victim’s shirt with powdered arsenic, which would get absorbed through the skin as the victim sweated. It caused sores that looked like a syphilitic chancre. Because most forms of arsenic have a strong taste, another popular way to administer it was through enemas, which were extremely popular in this era.

Poisoners also used a variety of plant-based substances, including mandrake, hemlock, aloe, buttercup, ergot, biting stonecrop, juniper, and nux vomica (strychnine). At least one type of poisonous mushroom was used as well. And it’s likely that some of the other substances in the Assassin’s Cabinet were employed as well.

The top of the line poison was secret du crapaud, or Toad’s Secret. This was manufactured in a variety of ways, all of which involved a toad in some way. The various methods all involve tormenting a toad, which causes it to release toxins in an attempt to fight off the attack. The dead toad might be dried and powdered and administered that way, it could be allowed to putrefy and then powdered, its urine could be administered, or it could be mixed with arsenic. Toad’s Secret drew on classical ideas that toads were particularly noxious creatures, so even if the drug wasn’t actually very poisonous, it could fetch a high price, especially because the methods for manufacturing it were not widely known. Marie Bosse’s son claimed to know a method to infuse a silver goblet with Toad’s Secret so that anyone who drank from the cup would die. But he eventually admitted that he had never managed to kill anyone that way.

As we’ll see next time, the Affair of the Poison didn’t become known because people started spewing blood during cabinet meetings. The real story is more tawdry than that.

If there’s a movie or tv show you’d like me to review, please make a donation to my Paypal account and if I can track down it down, I’ll review it.

Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

My favorite book on the The Affair of the Poisons is Lynn Wood Mollenauer’s Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s FranceIt’s an excellent look at the Affair from several different angles. I absolutely loved it.