Thursday, July 24, 2008

Royal Doll Fights

Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I
I know there is something undeniably creepy about a grown women playing with dolls. I don’t care. I love my new miniature dolls from Uneekdolldesign. Uneekdolldesign hand crafts royal queens and kings from several periods along with some of my favorite literary heroes like the Bronte Sisters. What could be better for writers block than the 3 sisters staring you down as you click clack away on your keyboard? Come on…you know you want a tiny Eliza Doolittle perched on your desk.

What’s Your Favorite Tiny Historical Figure?
It was a tough choice, but I had to go with cousins Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England. I have already written plenty about these two dueling dames.

Elizabeth IThe Come Back Queen
Mary Queen of Scots was Henry VII’s great-granddaughter and Elizabeth was Henry VII’s granddaughter. Both queens had claims to the English throne, but if you were on the side of the church, Mary’s claim was much stronger. Elizabeth’s succession had gone through an especially shaky period after the execution of her mom, Anne Boleyn (that’s the one with the supposed sixth finger) Thereafter, Henry VIII (that’s the really fat one) made Elizabeth a bastard at the tender age of 2. In typical Cinderella like fashion, Elizabeth spent her younger years with her nose in a book trying not to anger her father or her religious half-sister, Mary I (that’s the other Mary…the one with a drink named after her). But good ole Hank had a soft side for that feisty red-head and restored Elizabeth to her place in the succession before his death. Elizabeth was crowned queen of England in 1559 and they all lived happily ever after. The End.

No. Not quite…Stay with me the drama is just heating up.

Pope Pius VThe Big Question: Who Gets to Wear the Pearls?
So Pope Pius V (that’s the man with the funny cap) basically says…. wait just a holy minute here! Elizabeth is a heretic, a bastard, a no-good crown stealer and called her a bunch of other nasty things. Then he finished it off with one of those scary Pabal Bull thingies that meant you were going straight to hell. Unnerved, Elizabeth dodged the death threats and carried on with her queenly duties. But always looming in the background…we have a problem. Who is the rightful queen of England? Mary or Elizabeth?

Like watching a muddy female wrestling match, each queen showed her claws. Here’s a blow by blow of some of their more raucous battles.

Queen ELizabeth IRound 1: Some Bad Legal Advice
Mary’s showed her perfidious side when she refused to ratify the Treaty of Edinburg. (that’s the treaty that denounced Mary’s claim to the English throne). At the time, Mary was already queen of Scotland AND France. Adding England to her resume was a bit greedy. All she had to do was sign the darn paper, stand up to her power-hungy uncles and end it. But, Nooooo. She had to go and antagonize her cousin.

Mary Queen of ScotsAnd in this corner…
After King Francis II died (that was Mary’s sickly, French husband), Mary decided to return to Scotland. Traveling was a dangerous business in the 16th century made harder by the fact that Elizabeth refused Mary safe-conduct through England (she later granted it, but by then it was too late). Not granting safe conduct not only threw off Mary’s travel plans, it was also a serious royal snub and one Mary would never forget.

Mary Queen of Scots and ELizabeth IRound 2: Let’s be Friends
In an effort to make nice, Mary offered to sign the Treaty of Edinburg on the condition that Elizabeth name her as her successor. Elizabeth was suspicious, but offered to meet with Mary in hopes of coming to an agreement. The meeting was arranged for the fall of 1562. Mary was so excited to meet her cousin that, “she wished one of them was a man, so that their kingdoms could be united by marital alliance.”1 Aaaaaah Ain’t that sweet? This reply may sound like a serious girl-crush to our modern ears, but marriages were not based on love matches. Mary was most likely genuine in her hopes and very nervous about meeting her “good sister and cousin.”

Queen Elizabeth IRound 3: A Knife in a Protestant Back
But then the especially distasteful St. Bartholomew’s Massacre messed everything up. Back in France, Catholic and Protestant factions were ripping each other to shreds and throwing babies out the window if they were the wrong religion. Mary should have stayed out of the whole unpleasant business. Instead, she offered aid to her Catholic relatives. The Protestant Queen Elizabeth was forced to cancel the meeting. Mary went to her sick bed depressed and miserable.

Mary Queen of ScotsRound 4: Some Bad Love Advice
Things turned icy between the two queens for some time. The threat of Mary still loomed over Elizabeth’s throne, but the threat of a single Mary was even scarier. Mary could marry and form an alliance with any one of the Catholic royal houses of Spain, Austria or France thereby further endangering England. Mary could certainly wed, but it had to be someone of Elizabeth’s choosing. In what seems like astounding arrogance, Elizabeth sent Mary a list of 3 possible suitors for her hand in marriage; The Earl of Leicester (that was Elizabeth’s boy toy “robbin”), The Duke of Norfolk, and Lord Darnley. If Mary wed one of these three available bachelors then Elizabeth promised to name Mary as her successor. Decisions. Decisions. What will our passionate heroine do?

Lord DarnleyRound 5: Look What Happens when you play Matchmaker
Mary chose Lord Darnley. He certainly looked good on paper. He was handsome and rich and also had a claim to the English throne. He also was a syphilitic drunk who liked to beat the servants in his spare time. No one really liked Darnely, especially the Scottish lords. They had their skirts all bunched up (kilts had not been invented yet) until they decided enough already with this blockhead. Darnley soon ended up strangled to death outside the gardens of Kirk o' Field and Mary was accused of being involved in his untimely death.

The scandal might have blown over if she had not married one of the suspects in her husband’s murder, Lord Bothwell. The hanky panky between Mary and Bothwell was rumored to have gone on before Darnley's death. Mary also happened to look very pregnant shortly after her marriage to Bothwell probably due to the fact that she was carrying twins. Now you can do the math…we have adultery, some murder, a very pregnant looking Mary. It doesn’t look good to the kids of Scotland. Mary was eventually forced to flee Scotland and she went straight into the spider’s nest of England.

Mary Queen of ScotsRound 6: A Visit from an Unwanted Relative
Now what was Elizabeth to do? Mary was on English soil looking for a safe place to stay. Her catholic presence was threatening enough when she was in Scotland, but it was doubly problematic on the shores of England. Elizabeth decided to lock Mary up until she could figure out what to do with her. Unfortunately, it took about 19 years for Elizabeth to come to a not-so pretty solution.

Round 7: Plots and Intrigue
While Mary was imprisoned she was left with nothing to do but embroider unicorn tapestries, get fat, pray, write a few whiny letters and most importantly…. plot her cousin’s downfall. You can read more about the foolish Babington Plot and Mary’s attempts to take down Elizabeth in the book. (Or stay tuned for future blogs because I may write an even juicier part 2 to this drama covering the Ridolfi and Babington Plot.)

Queen Elizabeth IRound 8: The Coup d’Etat
This fairy tale has a sad ending….sadder than the death of my favorite golden girl. Elizabeth was forced to put a finish to Mary’s intrigues on the scaffold. In the end, Elizabeth was left wearing Mary’s pearls (literally) around her neck and Mary was left without a head on her neck.

Knock-out from Elizabeth.

Mary Queen of ScotsBut Wait…What’s Wrong with this Picture?
You could answer: Well, it is sort of disturbing that you are taking pictures of dolls. Yes True. But the real answer is that I should not even display these two dolls next to each other because historians (that’s the people who are really smart about such things) claim that Elizabeth and Mary NEVER met.

Now, maybe it’s because I have seen too many drunken girl fights in my rowdy college days, but I just don’t buy it. Elizabeth had Mary locked up for nearly 19 years, but never bothered to hop in her litter and take a little trip over to see her cousin? She was not just a tiny bit curious to see the famed sorceress who had bewitched countless men? Pleeeeeeease. Elizabeth loved a good intrigue as much as any pot-stirring courtier.

Jealousy Leads to Curiosity...
Elizabeth exposed her catty curiosity toward her elusive cousin on several occasions. When she asked Scottish emissary, Sir James Melville to give a detailed report on Mary, Elizabeth’s questions didn’t exactly focus on the political climate of Scotland. Instead, she asked frivolous questions like - so what does the wench look like? When her advisor described Mary’s statuesque height, she vainly replied “then she is too high; for I myself am neither too high nor too low!” 2 And when one foreign diplomat reported on Mary’s charms, Elizabeth rebuked “she herself was superior to the Queen of Scotland.3” But most telling of all was Elizabeth’s most famous lament at the birth of Mary’s son James I when she peevishly complained, “The Queen of Scots is mother of a fair son and I am but barren stock4We must look somewhat skeptically at these quotes because many are second-hand accounts. Still, Elizabeth does appear to compare herself to her cousin on several occasions. Yet, she was never curious to see how their heights measured up in person? Come now.

Pen Pals and Strangers
And let’s not forget the letters. Elizabeth and Mary wrote to each other many, many times. Mary sent Elizabeth her portrait. Elizabeth sent Mary a beautiful ring in return which Mary wore constantly. After countless letters, gifts, and failed attempts to meet, how do you pass up the opportunity to pay a visit to your closest adult relation when she happens to be locked up in one of your castles? Elizabeth’s advisors were certainly against the two queens meeting, but could they have really prevented a meeting?

So what do you think? Are you an Elizabeth or a Mary supporter? Do you believe they never met?

Weir, Alison. Elizabeth the Queen. London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.
Klarwill, Victor von. Queen Elizabeth and Some Foreigners. London: John Lane, 1928.
Fraser, Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots, London: Phoenix Press, 1969.
Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Randon House, 2004.
Somerset, Anne. Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992.
Jenkins, Elizabeth. Elizabeth the Great. New York, NY: Coward-McCann, 1958.
Brysson Morrison, Nancy. Mary, Queen of Scots. New York, NY: Vanguard Press 1960.

1. Weir, p. 129
2 .Somerset, p. 166
3. Klarwill, p. 215
4, Brysson Morrison, p. 147

Sunday, July 20, 2008


I am as tickled as a naughty royal with an ostrich feather to get an excellent award from Prima La Musica, the official weblog of Wolfgang Amade Mozart. Now, I must pass along this giddy feeling to some recently discovered blogs that are truly excellent.

And when you get really bored of my manic ramblings, don't forget to check out the “Raucous Blogs” listed in the left column.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Another Hairy Marie Antoinette Rumor

Marie Antoinette is not alone in this hairy rumor. It supposedly happened to Henry IV of France, Thomas More, Annie Oakley and Jerry Garcia. I swear it happened to Bill Clinton. If you ask around it seems everyone has a friend of a friend who had a grandmother that it happened to. It might be happening to me right now as I sit here writing this blog entry...procrastinating working on edits for my next book.

I am talking about hair going white literally over night or at the very least in less than a week. In my research on Marie Antoinette, I read two different accounts of her hair going white overnight before her final execution. When Madame Campan saw the queen two days after her arrest at Varennes she reported, “In a single night it (her hair) had turned as white as that of a woman of seventy.1” Legend also has it that Marie’s hair turned white the night before her execution.

I will admit that I am a little obsessed with Marie Antoinette’s hair. So the image of her going to bed with mounds of shinny, bouncy blond curls and waking up with a head of ghastly white hair has always stuck in my mind. We all know that stress is a killer. And surely, knowing that your head is going to be sliced off like a tomato in a Ginsu commercial can leave you a bit stressed. But could Marie’s stress have caused her hair to turn white overnight?

Let’s Break for the Science Bit
A hair strand resides in a hair follicle. The cells in the hair’s follicle, called melanocytes, make the prized melanin which gives our hair color. When we age, the melanocytes get a little sluggish and stop producing melanin resulting in the dreaded white hairs. Once that strand of hair turns white, it’s not going back to your lustrous color without some help from Miss Clairol.

Going Gray Gracefully
Hair is dead matter so when you are frightened or stressed whiteness cannot shoot down the strand. Instead, as hair grows from the root the whiteness starts there and gets longer and longer. As more and more hair is cut off at the ends by routine haircuts, we are left with white hair. This means that hair can only turn white as fast as it can grow.

There is a rare medical condition called diffuse alopecia areata that causes only your pigmented hair to fall out. This hair loss causes someone to appear like they have suddenly gone white when really they have just lost most of their colored hair. Alopecia Areata is often triggered by stress and can happen as rapidly as a couple of weeks.

Did Marie Antoinette really go Bald Overnight?
It is possible that the stress after Marie’s arrest caused her to loose so much hair that she was left with only white hair. Accounts do report that she was sick enough to be bleeding internally.

The last sketch of Marie immortalized by Jacque-Louis David may hold the clue to busting this rumor. The sketch portrays a weathered and grim faced Marie being taken to the scaffold in an open cart with her hands bound behind her back. Her hair had been cut off leaving what appears from the sketch only about two inches. Marie’s hair may have still had some color left, but the colored ends would have been lopped off to prepare her for the guillotine.

How Time Flies When You're Having Fun
Look at that…an hour has passed and I still have not done any work. If time flies when you are writing a silly blog entry then it must really seem to speed up when you are busy trampling and mutilating anyone who is wearing the wrong pants. To the revolutionary onlookers, it may have seemed like Marie’s hair turned white overnight, but she was hidden away from the public for months while in prison—plenty of time for the last two inches of Marie’s famed locks to turn white.

1. Farr, Evelyn. The Untold Love Story: Marie Antoinette & Count Fersen (1995)
Jeanne Louise Henriette Campan: Memoirs Of Marie Antoinette at Gutenberg
Wanjek, Christopher. Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distnace Healing to Vitamin O. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003
Lever, Evelyne. Marie Antoinette, The Last queen of France. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Train Wrecks and Truths

The countdown to reading my first review on The Raucous Royals has started. Some authors don’t care about book reviews. I am not one of those authors. And those authors that say they don’t care…BIG FAT LIARS. How can you work 2+ years on a project and not care about how it is reviewed? Impossible. Books are usually reviewed at least 3 months in advance so somewhere out there in the cruel world of book reviews is a nicely typed paragraph either dashing my hopes or raising them up. I probably won't see the first review until August. tick tock.

I really hope that whoever reviews my book hated history as a child as much as I did. I don’t think you can fully understand a 5th graders utter contempt without having been that kid who yawned at the French Revolution, or even worse, that teacher who has to continually stand in front of a class of yawning 7th graders when they rather be playing video games.

So there are six weeks now to release and I supposed to be able to talk about the book easily when people ask, “What is your book about?” Here is the long explanation:

A little bit about the book: what it IS and what it is NOT:
The Raucous Royals is definitely not a detailed biography of 13 royal figures throughout history. I have lots of book recommendations for kids and adults if you are looking for a deeper study of one of these royals. The Raucous Royals is more of a glimpse at some fascinating rulers and the rumors that changed their lives. It jumps from one rumor to the next on a rollercoaster ride of scandals and palace romps, and just like any good rumor, we'll never know the whole story. This may throw off some readers who prefer more detailed coverage in a biography. Fair enough. Other authors do that very well and that is why I have provided a huge book section on this site. “In depth” is not my style, and if you have ever watched a 10 year old channel surf then you will understand my choice not to focus on the minutia of each royal ruler.

Miss Prim and Proper at it Again
Back to why I am worried about reviews…. The reviews were not exactly kind to my last book, Who put the B in the Ballyhoo? I was prepared. I took on a tough subject. You can’t sugar coat the real history of circus life. I remember one reviewer said that Ballyhoo, “skirts propriety”. Ouch. If Ballyhoo skirted propriety then The Raucous Royals rips the pants off propriety. The way I look at it, history has not always followed the rules of decorum so I can’t make apologies for leaving the juicy bits in. If someone had left the murders, love scandals, sibling rivalries and countless beheadings in for me, then I would not have discovered my love of history so late in life.

I view this book as a gateway drug to history. The age range is 8+ but I am really hoping it appeals more to kids than adults. If you have a reluctant history lover….this is the book for that child. Teaching students about Henry VIII’s love life may not teach them how the English Reformation changed the course of history. But it just might peak that child’s interest enough to pick up another book on Henry VIII. And then maybe another book….and then another book. And pretty soon that same reluctant reader is carting around an overstuffed tome as big as their head on the English Reformation. And isn’t that the most important job of a book? To get readers to pick up another.

The Train Wreck
I didn’t really understand this concept until one of my author visits. It was a school visit for Ballyhoo and I was telling the story of Jumbo the elephant. The life of Jumbo is a story any parent, teacher or librarian can be proud to tell their kids. But then there was this incorrigible, freckle faced boy who in the middle of my heartfelt tale screamed, “Didn’t Jumbo get hit by a train?” I was frozen. I had about 50 young eyes on me looking to hear the truth. I never tell this part of the story. What was I to do? I could hear every parents’ scorn in the back of my head, “you told my child that Jumbo was hit by a train!....You gave my child nightmares!” So I breathed in deeply and said, “Yes, Jumbo was hit by a train. But his body still toured with the circus so his spirit never died.” All true. And what is that saying about the truth…something about it setting you free? Hmmm. It didn’t exactly work that way. A million questions about the gory details of Jumbo’s death followed my very truthful answer. The story of how Jumbo died is probably the only thing those kids remembered that day.

Kids want the truth. Sadly, authors who write textbooks are often forced to give a water downed version of it. It’s almost as if we don’t want our children to ask questions. Other books can fill in the gaps. And every parent has a choice. If you feel a book is not appropriate for your child’s age level, don’t buy it. If you are a librarian and are uncomfortable with some of history’s more scandalous eras, than don’t recommend the book.

After my school visit, a bunch of kids stormed the library. Not to read my book…. but to find books on Jumbo.

Maybe the truth can set readers free.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Queen Poker Face

When many people think of Queen Elizabeth, we picture the stately, stiff-backed queen richly garbed in jewels. All paintings during Tudor times were produced as propaganda to demonstrate the monarchy’s absolute strength and wealth. Elizabeth’s image was no more than a public service announcement that the queen was healthy and still in charge. With so much of the people’s faith riding on a simple painting, Elizabeth was extremely careful about how she was depicted. She commissioned very few artists to paint her portrait and used those selected works as the master for all artists to copy. I have written more information about Elizabeth in portraiture here.

A couple of years ago, I saw the famous “Darnley Portrait” at the National Portrait Gallery. I was a little disappointed. Not because it is not a stunning painting. It truly is unique because it is one of the more lifelike images of Elizabeth. But I had thought that when I saw the painting up close, Elizabeth’s haughty and regal gaze would reveal some clues as to the woman behind the painting. Elizabeth’s disapproving expression just made me feel like I had stolen an old lady’s purse. What was Elizabeth really like? Her painting tells no secrets.

Paintings of Elizabeth before her accessions in 1558 have always fascinated me much more than the carbon copies of the ageless Virgin Queen. There are only two paintings that historians can say for certain depict Elizabeth as a teenager. One shown here to the left shows Elizabeth in a rose damask gown and portrays a far more uncertain woman. This painting was probably produced around 1546 by the court painter William Scrots.

The other painting depicts Elizabeth around the age of ten in a family group and was produced around 1544-5 by an unknown artist. A close-up of the painting can be viewed at Marilee Cody’s site.

Queen ElizabethRecently another painting depicting a young Elizabeth was discovered at Boughton House and is believed to be a copy of a lost original. The painting shows Henry VIII, his fool Will Somers, Henry’s son Edward VI, Mary I, and to the far right Elizabeth. This painting is such a significant find because it suggests that other paintings of unknown women are also Elizabeth. A portrait at Syon House was once believed to be Lady Jane Grey before Sir Roy Strong identified it as Elizabeth in 1969. This new discovery confirms Strong’s assessment of the sitter. She wears the same somber protestant dress with high collar and the hairstyle and black cap are remarkably similar. The heavy lidded eyes and prominent nose clearly resemble Elizabeth’s coronation painting.

A comparison of the paintings side by side

If you like to learn more about this lost portrait then listen to Alison Weir on the BBC podcast.