Mind of a tyrant or just his father’s son?

Ah, it takes annual leave for me to be able to, finally, add all these thoughts on history that I’ve been accumulating for months.


I was recently watching David Starkey’s Mind of a Tyrant, which was a four part documentary on Channel 4 a number of years ago. Interestingly, the book to accompany the series drops the “mind” part from the title.


And I know why!


As a psychologist, I was hoping for some deep insight into the mind of Henry VIII but that isn’t what you get. There are some brief moments that allude to this and that but nothing firm.


Strangely, one of the very sources that I think underlies Henry become a tyrant is ignored. It might seem rather Freudian, but his father sticks out in my mind as a primary motivator.


The son certainly had some issues with his father and I don’t think that he necessarily put him up on a pedestal (although it is interesting that the tight reign and control that Henry VII kept over his son, particularly when he became heir, is also found in Henry VIII’s treatment of his own son, Edward). The big thing that sticks out for me is the way Henry VII treated his wife, Elizabeth of York, which I think set a really bad example for their son in how to treat women.


Elizabeth of York was the heir to the throne of England. Henry won his kingship by right of conquest. If he hadn’t married Elizabeth he would probably have been toppled fairly quickly. But Henry knew this and so he subjugated and controlled Elizabeth, and particularly her public image, to assert his right to the throne. He wanted everyone to know that he didn’t need Elizabeth to be king, he was the rightful heir through blood and conquest. He could rule without her.


So, Elizabeth’s role of queen was marginalised. If you look back to the early queen’s of England you see that they wielded immense power but that that power decreased gradually over the centuries until you reach Elizabeth of York who had no power at all.


I always feel sorry for Elizabeth of York and the way she was treated. Bar the title, there was nothing about her “rule” that makes her a queen. She had no power, she made no decisions. Henry pretty much treated her like a doormat.


And, I think their son got his idea of queenship from watching his parents. One of the reasons that Anne Boleyn fell was because she failed to transition from the flirty all powerful mistress to the demure and obedient wife. Jane Seymour observed this and managed to, mostly, avoid Henry VIII’s wrath. Katherine Parr fell foul of it. Queens, in Henry VIII’s mind, where to be seen as a pretty show piece, and certainly not heard.


And, if he could treat his wife like that, was there any hope for anyone else? If his wife couldn’t disagree with him without fear of having her head chopped off, was anyone else likely to disagree with him?


Mind of a tyrant? I present you with Exhibit A, m’lord.


The catalyst of Bloody Mary’s reign?

On a related topic to my Martyrs’ post, I was also thinking about how Mary I came to be known as Bloody Mary and whether it was inevitable.


In the beginning of her reign, she had her vengeance on the people who were involved in deposing her mother. Charles II did this too, so we’ll just skim over that for the moment. Lots of people if they had the power would take bloody vengeance on those that have wronged them.


But, I don’t think that it was inevitable that Mary’s reign would descend into the burning horror that it did.


I think the turning point was executing Jane Grey.


Up until this point, Mary was taking a fairly moderate line, believing that she could gently nudge people to convert to Catholicism. However, the Wyatt plot made it inevitable that she would have to do something about Jane Grey. But she was extremely reluctant to do so. She believed that Jane’s age required mercy and she sincerely believed Jane when she said that she had been forced to take the crown. Unfortunately, two things coincided with one another: the Wyatt rebellion and being told that Prince Philip would not come to England to marry her while Jane was still alive.


Executing Jane was probably the hardest decision that Mary ever made. Right up to the execution Mary was trying to find a reason not to go ahead: plead your belly, convert to Catholicism. I think it hardened her towards difficult decisions. If she could execute her cousin, someone of royal blood, a teenager, someone she may not even have believed was truly guilty of treason, and which troubled her conscience, no-one was safe. Sending heretics to the stake was probably a much easier decision seen as it didn’t contract her conscience.


So, I think the execution of Jane Grey was the turning point in Mary’s reign. It wasn’t inevitable. If Jane’s father, the Duke of Suffolk, hadn’t led a rebellion declaring for Jane, Mary’s reign may have passed as a much quieter one.


And, Elizabeth I is usually seen as setting the foundations for intentionally and publically executing princes with the death of Mary Queen of Scots, but Jane Grey was a queen, although not an anointed one (but neither was Edward V and we still see him as a king). Never mind the death of Mary of Scotland paving the way for the execution of Charles I, the execution of QUEEN Jane Grey set the foundations for the later executions of Mary of Scotland and Charles I/

What happened to all the martyrs?

I know this marks me out as an oddity, but whereas others may spend their free time down the pub, watching TV, or having a natter with friends, I find myself entertaining myself by thinking through questions on a variety of topics, trying to see different angles and arguments. One of the topics that I keep coming back to is the different personalities of court life in medieval England (I know, bizarre!).


My latest thought was about why it is that the people I associate with religious ideas, and who were devoutly committed to their religion, are all women. Yes, there is Cranmer, and Knox, and Gardiner, but the ones that stay with me are Anne Boleyn, Mary Tudor, Jane Grey, Katherine Parr and Anne Askew, who all lived, at least part, of their lives in fear of being burned.


So, I was trying to work out why it is these names that I think of first.


It might be because in medieval England the only thing that women had any control over was their religion. It was the only thing that they were free to make a decision about. We see something similar in modern times in the clinic where people who have little control in their life find one thing that they focus on with the end result being things like OCD, self harm, controlled eating, extreme dieting and binging, and suicide.


Take someone’s external choices away and their attention will focus on something within themselves, the only thing that they can control.


Take Mary I, for example. With a mother like Catherine of Aragon, she was always going to be devoted to religion. But in adulthood she was intransient on the topic. I suspect that the black and white view she developed over religion was largely borne in her difficult teenage years when she was an outcast and banned from seeing her mother. When everything in your life is turning to shit where do you turn? These days it might be a bottle of vodka, but back then, you can believe that your hardships have been sent by god to test you before you enter heaven.


Jane Grey is another. She had a horrendous childhood. Beat black and blue for having an opinion. Made to feel like shit on her parents’ shoes because she wasn’t the longed for son and heir. I think her devotion to Protestantism was borne of this difficult childhood: her parents, and no-one else, could control her devotion which was a purely internal matter.


Going along these lines, it is probably not surprising that both of these women refused to give up their religion, even when they were both threatened with execution.


I hear sometimes people comment about the fact that, these days, no-one would die for a cause. I think that there are still some places in the world where this isn’t the case. People won’t die for a cause these days because they have choices. But, take those choices away, and I’m sure we would see the return of the martyr.

Why are there no records of foetal alcohol syndrome before the 1800s?

As you know, I am a bit of a fan of history. But something has been bugging me for quite some time. Linking in with the recommendation in modern times to pregnant women that they don’t drink during pregnancy, why are there no records of foetal alcohol syndrome before the 1800s?


Until recently, water was contaminated, so people drank wine and ale instead, including pregnant women. And they probably consumed quite a bit of it every day. So, why are there no records of FAS before the 1800s? Where there FAS kids but they were never recorded? Where they quietly gotten rid of?


Could the use of alcohol partly explain the high rates of miscarriage, still birth and early infant death?


A conundrum, indeed…

From heir to despair?

This post may seem a little odd.

But, as you know, I LOVE medieval history. And I’ve just been looking into that age old question of Henry VIII’s heirs. And why he had so few. And this leads me to some gynaecological musings….

Now, bearing in mind, still births, infant deaths and miscarriages were extremely common in the medieval period, but given the plush conditions, good food, etc., of royalty, you would expect this to be less of a problem.

Henry’s problems are widely known.

But Catherine of Aragon’s sister’s, bar Juana, had difficulties with pregnancies as well. Catherine also had a false pregnancy.

On Henry’s side, his sister Margaret lost 5 children before about the age of 18 months with James IV. Mary lost her two sons with Suffolk in infancy. Henry’s grandmother Margaret Beufort only ever had one child and no more pregnancies.

Henry’s mother, Elizabeth of York, died in childbirth, and lost several children.

Margaret’s daughter in law, Mary of Guise, only managed to have one child with James V before he died, and never remarried, so we’ll never know. But his daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, had one surviving child, and at least one miscarriage, perhaps two.

Henry’s daughter, Mary, had two false pregnancies.

Going back further, Edward I lost many of his children in childbirth. Henry I only had one surviving legitimate child, Empress Matilda.

But strangely enough, Elizabeth of York’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, had, I think, 9 surviving children, and her mother Jacquetta of Luxembourg, had around 14 children.

It’s weird. There was definitely something hinky going on.

Forward into the future, Charles II never had any legitimate children.


Maybe if it happens again, we’ll end up with an Australian on the throne….

Wanted: Thwarted action movie director for historical documentary

As a big consumer of, what I would call History Porn, I do love history documentaries.

But as I was watching The Plantagenets last week alongside History Channel’s Crusade, I was thinking about how kinda samey the battle scenes are. Lots of raised swords and yelling ‘aaaagh’.

Who comes up with this shit?

Is there a job advert that goes out saying ‘Wanted: Failed action movie director wanted for BBC documentary’??

I assume directing a battle scene requires some kind of technical expertise. Is there a course on ‘How to film an historical battle’ in Film School? Are all those film directors who really want to film the next Bruce Willis action flick destined for Historical Battle Purgatory?

Never mind all the extras who dress up like twats and yell ‘aaagh’. Are they recruited from the local pub on a Friday night?

It all sounds, to me, like blokey twitter.

Save us all the bother and go fish out your He-Man figures from your parents’ loft….

EDIT. Apparently this is the first post on WP to have the tag ‘general twattery’….

BBC’s The Plantagenet’s

“The Plantagenet’s” was hugely a enjoyable, if extremely condensed, series but I must take exception to the last two minutes of the final episode, when Professor Bartlett seemed to get “British” and “English” history a little muddled. While the Plantagenet’s were a hugely influential dynasty in English history, “Britain” did not exist, and they certainly had marginal influence in Scotland’s royal dynasty (bar Edward I). In fact, a case could be made for Scotland having had a hand in the founding of the post-Conquest royal dynasty when Matilda of Scotland married Henry I in order to give royal Wessex legitimacy to the new English royal family.

Looking a bit closer, James I/VI’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart married into the Hanover family in Palatine and, thus, is related to our current monarch. Of course, Elizabeth Stuart is also the potential source for porphyria which George III is suggested to have suffered from.

Not bad for a country of barbarians!

And for those, who are like me, who like to geek out on this type of thing, here is a link to the wiki page for how our current monarch descends from William I


PS, just in case you’ve mistaken me for a heathen (i.e, royalist), I’m a dye in the wool Republican