Sunday, December 23, 2012

Henry VIII's Christmas Message

If King Henry VIII were alive today, he might say...


Wednesday, December 19, 2012


photograph: George Biard
What makes a woman great?

Is it celebrity, like Marilyn Monroe? Is it saintliness, like Mother Theresa? Is it political ambition, like Cleopatra?

Or is it something more elusive than any of these?

It is now fourteen years since Diana, Princess of Wales, died in that horrific car smash in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris, yet the anniversary of her fiftieth birthday last year saw a fresh outpouring of public grief.

For a major celebrity, Diana was remarkably self deprecating: "I don't even know how to use a parking meter, never mind a phone box." Her greatest talent was in being nice to people: "I want to walk into a room, be it a hospital for the dying or a hospital for the sick children, and feel that I am needed. I want to do, not just to be."

Did this make her a great woman? Her critics said no, because she never held any position of political power. But in a BBC poll she was voted third of "100 Greatest Britons", easily outranking her former mother-in-law and placing her above Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton and Nelson.

This infuriates those who argued that she achieved nothing in her life. They ignore her tireless work for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines - the victims of anti-personnel mines were and are mostly children. The ban was effected shortly after her death, and in a world seemingly run by arms dealers this was no small achievement.

My mother certainly thought Diana was a great woman. She was no royalist, the only other Windsor she had time for was the Queen's mother. She was of the generation that lived in London during the Blitz and still remembers that Queen Mary didn't leave London during the bombing - she stayed "with us".

She reckoned Diana was of the same stripe. Mum even once owned a Princess Diana doll. It was about two feet tall, and looked more like Barbie on steroids, dressed up for a day at the races. It was a real talking point in her house for many years, (along with the inflatable two metre high kangaroo in the backyard.) Diana's greatest virtue, in her words, was that she wasn't "stuck up". 

photograph: Rick
She had the common touch. And for East Enders like my mother, that was everything.

Few women in history have inspired the same kind of adoration as Diana. Perhaps because she said things like: "HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug: heaven knows they need it."

Yet opinion about her remains divided, as with any famous person. One of her more spiteful biographers wrote that she was a "demanding shopaholic ... obsessed with her public image"; her brother eulogized her as "the most hunted person of this modern age."

She was certainly an enigma: she appeared to be a woman on a desperate search for love yet she once said: "People think that at the end of the day a man is the only answer. Actually, a fulfilling job is better for me."

She will be much written about in the future, I guarantee. In a hundred years historical fiction authors like me will pore through the history files looking for the facts about her for their own stories. But what will those facts be?

Every saint has a dirty secret; even a monster may have an adoring grandchild. The really interesting thing about famous people is not how many lovers they had, how many battles they won, or countries they ruled. They become truly interesting when they have a human face. Great virtues side by side with obvious failings can be very appealing.

Diana was certainly very human. It was part of her charm. She had the opportunity to help the less fortunate and took it wholeheartedly; she went about doing good while most of us just go about.

It is too soon to write the first unfettered historical novel about her. But I suspect she will become one of the most enduring women in history. God knows there have been few enough men or women of true celebrity and glamour who have done so much for others while remaining as fallible and earthy and flawed as the rest of us. 

See Colin Falconer's latest novel, Anastasia, here, 
and more history from Colin Falconer at  

From History and Women

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Captain Nichola Kathleen Sarah Goddard (May 2, 1980 - May 17, 2006)


Captain Nichola Kathleen Sarah Goddard, MSM, was the first female Canadian combat soldier killed in combat, and the 16th Canadian soldier killed in Canadian operations in Afghanistan. 

The daughter of school teachers, Nichola was born in Madang, Papua New Guinea. Her early years were spent moving to numerous Canadian locations with her parents. The family settled in Edmonton, Alberta for a while before moving to Antigonish Nova Scotia. There Nichola attended high school and took up running and cross country skiing. Her team nicknamed her “Carebear” a fitting tribute for the caring and considerate person she was.

Nichola entered the Canadian military, serving with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and soon rose to the rank of captain. 

In January 2006, her regiment was shipped to Afghanistan. Captain Goddard arrived in January 2006 and began her duties as a forward observation officer. 

Almost immediately, Nichola found herself embroiled in battle, but not on the battlefield. All service personnel were housed in large white tents. The conflict started a month after her arrival when Lt.-Col. Ian Hope issued an order to hang tarps in the sleeping quarters to separate the females from the males. Never a shrinking violet, Nichola was outraged. For months, she had undergone the same strenuous, unremitting training as the men she led, sleeping in the same trenches, sharing close quarters, fighting as equals. Nichola wrote a letter to Hope, reminding him that the days of “objecting to mixing genders in combat is over.” Despite the passion behind her words, she failed to sway her commander and the tarps remained hanging, a bitter reminder of her loss and the struggles of women in the military.

On May 17, 2006, rumors that the Taliban were preparing to launch an assault on the city, resulted in Nichola and the crew becoming in involved in a firefight in the Panjwaye District. As troops were moving into a mosque to capture 15 alleged Taliban members, several dozen hidden militants began firing from neighboring houses. Moments before her death, Nichola became the first army officer, male or female, to direct artillery fire against an enemy force since the Korean War. As crew commander, Nichola was standing half-exposed in her LAV III, when it was struck by two rocket-propelled grenades.

In honor of Nichola’s ultimate sacrifice, a school in Calgary was named after her.

Nichola, your courage and beauty will live on in the hearts of all those whom you loved and left behind. Thank you for your sacrifice. We are proud of you and will let your name live on forever.

From History and Women

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Isabella D'Este, the Grand Lady of Renaissance

EBJ- Series: Legendary Women in History
painting by Titian
Born in Ferrara (1474), and the eldest of six children, Isabella was raised in a household where culture, politics and the arts were ever-present.  Her parents’ favourite, Isabella was extremely intelligent and a delightful conversationalist.

She was such an avid learner of politics that by the age of sixteen she was already debating with ambassadors and politicians.  Sixteen was also the age she married her betrothed, Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua and General of the Venetian army (she actually knew–and was promised to him since the age of six!).  With a flair for fashion, an eye for great art work, a passion for music and literature, a love of history and languages, and a knack for politics- this blonde beauty also had charisma to boot.

Not only could Isabella influence fashion and set trends, renowned artists such as Titian, Raphael, and the great Leonardo- all regularly spent time earning her patronage. As for politics, Isabella’s keen sense of governing and tactful understanding of her people earned her great respect as commander and ruler as well.
In fact, Isabella always governed in place of her husband while he was away- and while he was imprisoned in Venice under captivity of King Charles VIII of France, she was regent for three years.  She would later go on to rule as regent for her own son (the heir) after the death of Francesco.  And, ultimately, Isabella would become sole ruler of Solarolo for ten years, up until her death in 1529. 

As for the arts, Isabella had a passion for all that was beauty and knowledge.  Fluent in both Greek and Latin, and a lover of Roman history, Isabella kept her mind filled with culture.  She also played several musical instruments and delighted particularly in playing the lute.  Surrounding herself with great artists, her affinity and exquisite taste led her to the opening of her own ducal salons as private museums containing her private art collection.  Isabella furthered her mission by expanding and making art and culture accessible by opening a school for girls.  Having been taught no differently than her own brothers, Isabella understood the importance and benefit that educating girls can have on society.  In her own private time, Isabella also loved to write.  History has preserved a significant number of letters of correspondence shared with her well-beloved sister-in-law, Elisabetta Gonzaga.

What about her love life? As mentioned previously, Isabella and Francesco knew eachother from when they were little.  Theirs began as a love that seemed to forever flourish (they did go on to having eight children together!).  But alas their story was not all paradise-like.  Francesco was to spoil all that by begetting himself the mistress of mistresses…the ultimate Lucrezia Borgia herself! 

Lucrezia was married to Isabella’s younger brother- and no sooner did she come into the family that the affair commenced.  A rival to Isabella (but in no way culturally comparable- or beloved by all), Lucrezia put a huge damper in what was once a blissful marriage.  But in the end Isabella would be the one to come out triumphant, if one is to revisit the history:  Lucrezia lived a horrid life and Francesco is believed to have died of syphilis.  

Isabella instead went down in history as a patron of Renaissance, arts and literature.  To quote Niccolo da Correggio, Isabella rightfully earned the title of  ‘First Lady of the World’.
Note: in the above painting, Titian painted Isabella as she looked in her 60's, but because she did not like herself as such, she demanded he repaint her as she looked when she was in her 20's! Spunky as well as smart;

From History and Women

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Those Scandalous Etruscan Women

Those Scandalous Etruscan Women


Barbara Lambert


The Whirling Girl

If there were a prize for getting unfairly bad-mouthed in ancient history, Etruscan women would likely win hands down. The Greeks and later Romans said terrible things about them: lascivious, lewd, sybaritic, totally out of control. Imagine! Etruscan women “attended banquets” where they “sat under the same blankets as their husbands!” – a behavior that had them compared to hetairai (basically courtesans or prostitutes: the only women allowed at Greek parties). Even Aristotle tut-tutted.
Not only did Etruscan wives scandalously go out in public -- and entertain lavishly, wear glorious jewellery, indulge a clothing sense that is recorded in frescos, statuary, and the bronze mirrors etched with sometimes rather racy scenes that give us fascinating detail of how fashion changed down the centuries – but they also learned to read and write. (We know the danger of that!) They were rumored to raise their own children, too. Presumably passing along the dire literary habit. 

Before the rise of Rome as a super power, the Etruscans ruled almost the whole of Italy. Their ships dominated the surrounding seas. Fearsome enough, as news of them spread abroad, without the added queasiness of hearing how Etruscan society accorded women influence and power.

Hard to say where this all started. With Tanaquil? Who used her soothsaying powers to persuade her Etruscan husband, Lucius Tarquin, that he could become the first Etruscan king of Rome?

Or maybe the bad rap began with Tullia, her successor, who arranged a series of murders to keep the dynasty in the family -- finally convincing her husband that her own father should be murdered, then publicly driving her chariot over his body to make sure. This ruthless streak was passed along to the third of the Tarquin kings, Tarquin the Proud, whose son finally brought down the dynasty with the infamous “rape of Lucretia”. After that, the Etruscan Tarquins were driven from Rome, and a Republic was established.

Granted, the Tarquins turned out to be an overbearing lot (though responsible for any number of remarkable advancements in the Rome). But surely it’s unfair for the whole of Etruscan womanhood to be tainted by their extremes.

One of the reasons that the Etruscans, in general, gained a reputation for libertine excesses is that none of their literature survives. Their enemies got the last word in, literally. At least, until archaeology came along to tell a different story.

We know, now, that women in Etruria were accorded dignity and respect, right across the spectrum of family and public and religious life. And speaking of those children, whom so scandalously they “raised”, there are many statues, carvings and ex-votos, large and small, showing images of women not just raising, but breast-feeding their children – images so like Medieval and Renaissance depictions of “Madonna and Child” that it’s hard not to wonder at their influence on the great masterpieces of later Italian religious art.

So yes, they loved to party – but even in lavish “elite” tombs, their favorite things to take along to the after life included loom weights, spindle-whorls, and much further evidence of dedication to the home based industries that made such a major contribution to their society’s commercial wealth.

Still, they were scandalous, these Etruscan women. They rode horses (shockingly, “astride”, as recent analysis of a female skeleton has affirmed); some even had their own chariots (discovered buried with them in their graves); and unlike Roman women who had no names of their own (but were known just as their fathers’ daughters or their husbands’ wives) Etruscan women passed on both name and rank to their children, along with distinct legal rights. Not only did they own their names, but they had a distinct  sense of ownership of their bodies – as excavation of Etruscan “healing sanctuaries” has revealed, where miniature bronze or terracotta reproductions of the most intimate female body parts have been discovered, along with other votive offerings.

No wonder they were tut-tutted at. What a threat they truly must have seemed, to other “decently ordered” cultures of the ancient world. Across society at large, their like was not seen again till modern times. 

And even now – ah, even now!

But that is another story.

Visit Barbara Lambert!  

From History and Women

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fashion in the days of Marie Antoinette

I have always been enchanted with the 18th century - it is definitely a favourite of mine. I came across this video in my research for one of my forthcoming novels and was thrilled to see a gown that is attributed to Marie Antoinette and her seamstress Rose Bertin.

From History and Women

Monday, September 17, 2012

18th Century Noblewoman's Fashion

Fashion has come a long way. Most days, when around the house, you can find me in a nice roomy t-shirt and yoga pants. But in the 18th century, a woman's clothing was much more complex with numerous layers and trimmings. And then, after a woman is dressed, freedom of movement is constricted. Here is a video I found that demonstrates the complexity noblewomen faced each morning just to get dressed.

From History and Women

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Theodora Constantinople Justinian
She was born in the year 500, though history is unsure where. Her father trained bears; her mother danced bare. Yet she grew up to marry an Emperor and become one of the most renowned and respected women in history.

The main historical reference for her life is a contemporary scribbler called Procopius; he wrote three accounts of her life, and they all contradicted each other. So our main source is completely unreliable.

But we do know that when her father died, Theodora, her mother and her two sisters were rendered destitute and that she and her three sisters followed her mother into a Constantinople brothel. The terms of her employment would have included exotic dancing on stage and providing sexual services off it.

According to Procopius she made a name for herself with her portrayal of Leda and the Swan, first performing a striptease, then lying on her back while her support act scattered seeds on her body. A flock of geese were then brought in to peck them off her. A sort of corn porn.

But Procopius goes further, alleging that she entertained ten men at a time, and when she’d exhausted them would then satisfy their thirty slaves as well. And though she flung wide three gates to the ambassadors of Cupid, she lamented that nature had not similarly unlocked the straits of her bosom, that she might there have contrived a further welcome to his emissaries.

Theodora doing a Sarah Bernhardt 
I’m not sure I believe him there. He sounds very much like a rancorous or jilted lover.

What we do know is that at sixteen she accompanied a functionary called Hecebolus to North Africa where he took up the position of governor of Pentapolis. But he beat and abused her so after four years she left him and lived for a while in Alexandria, where she converted to Christianity.

So when she returned to Constantinople in 522 she gave up geese and pierced bosoms and settled for life spinning wool near the palace. It was here that she attracted the attention of the emperor’s nephew, Justinian. It wasn’t a casual affair; Theodora was not only beautiful, she was also smart and amusing and he wanted to marry her. But the law forbade high born men marrying actresses - even after they had renounced geese.

So when Justinian took the throne in 525, he simply repealed the law.

He showed great foresight. Historians agree that it was Theodora's courage and decisiveness that later saved Justinian's reign.

photograph: Testus
During the Nika riots in 532, a huge mob ran amok in the city, and were about to proclaim a new emperor, Hypatius. Justinian prepared to flee Constantinople. But at a meeting of the government council, Theodora urged him to fight it out, reminding him that "purple makes a fine shroud" - meaning it would be better to die fighting as an emperor than to run away and live the rest of his life as an exile.

Justinian rediscovered his nerve. He ordered his loyal troops to attack the demonstrators in the Hippodrome and after fierce fighting they killed over thirty thousand of them.

He kept his purple and never forgot that it was Theodora who had saved his throne.

After the revolt, Justinian rebuilt Constantinople and made it the most splendid city in the world; even today the Hagia Sophia remains one of the great architectural wonders.

He treated Theodora as his equal and she used her influence to affect real change in the empire. She had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution; she created a convent called the Metanoia (Repentance), where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves. She also expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership; instituted the death penalty for rape; and established basic property rights for women right across the Eastern Empire. She also forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery - a custom that had been legal until then.

It is why she is now considered perhaps the greatest woman in the history of the Roman Empire. As a result of her efforts, the status of women in the Byzantine Empire was elevated far above that of women in the Middle East and the rest of Europe.

Theodora died of an unspecified cancer on 28 June 548 at the age of 48; Justinian wept bitterly at her funeral. It was a remarkable life and a remarkable legacy; and sadly, her reforms are as badly needed in much of the world even today as they were then. 

harem, colin falconer, suleiman the magnificent

See Colin Falconer's HAREM here

See more history at 
Looking for Mr Goodstory here

From History and Women

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Women Who Ruled: Mahpeyker Kosem Sultan of Ottoman Turkey

By Lisa J. Yarde

For women who ruled, it seemed as if power and enduring happiness could not often coexist. While they lived, these women proved they could be as competent, decisive, and cruel when necessary, similar to their male counterparts.

Imperial Hall, Topkapi Palace
In the seventeenth century, Sultan Mehmed III fathered a son, Ahmet I, who became ruler of the Ottoman Empire in 1603, at the age of thirteen. Until then, Ahmet had spent several years in isolation within Topkapi Palace's Golden Cage, an apartment reserved for princes younger than the reigning sovereign. Two years later, a fifteen year-old Greek girl born in 1590 entered his harem, a slave re-named Kosem. Daughter of a priest, Kosem entered the harem and in 1612, bore him their first son, Murad. She later became the mother of the princes Ibrahim and Bajezit.

Ahmet died in 1617 and his younger brother, Mustafa I, succeeded him. All that time in the Golden Cage in his youth made Mustafa crazy. Courtiers deposed him twice before Kosem's son, Murad IV, came to the throne in 1623 at the age of eleven. His youth required the appointment of the Valide Sultan Kosem as his official regent. Kosem advised her son at meetings of the Sultan's ministers from behind a curtain while she remained secluded from view. It was the first time in Ottoman history where a woman played such a prominent, official role. During Murad’s reign she gained the official title of Mahpeyker Kosem Sultan.

Sultan Murad IV
Murad proved to be a cruel ruler in his majority, prohibiting drinking and smoking upon pain of death, while he indulged in both habits. His younger brother Ibrahim soon showed signs of the same madness that affected Mustafa I. Kosem's hope that her remaining son Bajezit might succeed his incompetent brother ended when Murad ordered Bajezit's death after losing a contest to him. Murad died in 1640 at the age of 27 due to cirrhosis of the liver from his excessive drinking. Before his passing, he gave one final order: the death of his surviving brother Ibrahim. Kosem prevented the murder and coaxed a fearful Ibrahim out of the Golden Cage. His ineptitude allowed her to oversee the empire again.
Sultan Ibrahim I

Though her third son was mentally unstable, it served Kosem's interests to have Ibrahim inherit the throne. While the incompetent Sultan loitered around the palace feeding coins to fish, urging his agents to purchase furs and fill his harem with the most obese women they could find, Kosem continued to rule. Even after Ibrahim's death in a palace coup in 1648, Kosem refused to surrender the regency to Turhan, the Russian mother of her seven-year old grandson Mehmed IV. In 1651, Kosem began plotting the removal and replacement of the sultan, but the conspiracy failed without the support of the army. Harem servants strangled Kosem. Three days of official mourning followed her death.

The life of Kosem is celebrated in the 2010 Turkish film, Mahpeyker  - Kosem Sultan

From History and Women

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Colin Falconer

Mumtaz Mahal, inspired the Taj Mahal
Mumtaz Mahal
In the west we think of Romeo and Juliet as the archetypal lovers, the ultimate romantic couple. Yet India has perhaps better claim to the accolade than Italy; if you want to find a monument to the world's greatest love story, you will find it in one of India’s most polluted and industrialized cities, not the cobbled medieval streets of Verona.

India’s Juliet was born Arjumand Banu Begum, in Agra, northern India, the niece of the Empress Nur Jehan, wife of the Emperor Jehangir. She was fourteen years old when she was engaged to Prince Khurram - later to become the Shah Jahan. But she had to wait five years for the marriage, for a date chosen by court astrologers as propitious for a happy marriage.

For once, the court astrologers got it exactly right.

In the intervening years the Shah had already taken two other wives; but after he married Arjumand he was so taken with her that he surrendered his polygamous rights to other women in order to be only with her. He later conferred upon her the title ‘Mumtaz Mahal’ - the chosen one of the palace.

According to the official court chronicler, Motamid Khan, the relationship with his other wives ‘had nothing more than the status of marriage. The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favour which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence (Mumtaz) exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other.’

Of course, the affections of princes can be notoriously fickle; but not in the case of Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal

Mumtaz became his trusted companion, and travelled with him everywhere, even on military campaigns, despite her frequent pregnancies. Court historians go to elaborate lengths to document the intense and erotic relationship the couple enjoyed. His trust in her was so profound that he even gave her his imperial seal, the Murh Uzah

Buranphur, where Mumtaz Mahal died
Burhanpur: photograph Md iet
In their nineteen years of marriage she bore him thirteen children, seven of whom died at birth or at a very young age. But in 1631, while him accompanying on a military expedition in Burhanpur (now in Madhya Pradesh) she died while giving birth to their fourteenth child, a daughter named Gauhara.

The Shah was reportedly inconsolable. He went into secluded mourning for a year and when he appeared again, his hair had turned white.

The first half of his life had been dedicated to their marriage; the second half of it he dedicated to her memorial.

In 1631 he had her body disinterred and transported in a golden casket back to Agra. He then set to work planning the design and construction of a suitable mausoleum and funerary garden for the woman who was the love of his life. It was a task that would take more than 22 years to complete: he was still laboring over her tomb in his fifties. 

Taj Mahal
the Taj Mahal

 He had translucent white marble brought from Rajasthan; jade and crystal from China; turquoise from Tibet; carnelian from Arabia. He brought in the finest artisans in the Empire. There were sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, stonecutters from Baluchistan.   

When it was finished it became one of the wonders of the world and remains the iconic emblem of India; the Taj Mahal.

mausoleum, the Taj Mahal
But the construction bankrupted the Empire and soon after its completion, he was deposed by his son Aurangzeb and put under house arrest at nearby Agra Fort. 

It is said that he could not see the Taj from his cell so he hung a crystal in the high window so he could see its reflection there. When he died, Aurangzeb buried him in the mausoleum next to his wife.

Theirs was one of the great love stories of history. And as the four million tourists who flock to Agra every year will attest, it was indeed a love that did not grow old. 

harem, colin falconer, suleiman the magnificent

See Colin Falconer's HAREM here.

See more history at 
Looking for Mr Goodstory here
From History and Women