Wednesday 12 December 2012

Christmas Past

Last year, before I started this blog, I posted a piece on Christmas day 500 years ago and Christmas day 1000 years ago on my website. I will do something similar this year but, in the meantime, here is Christmas 1511 and Christmas 1011 once again:


Christmas Day 1511 - 500 Years Ago
Five hundred years ago Henry VIII and his court prepared for a particularly lavish Christmas: the third of the king's reign. Henry brought his court to Greenwich, one of his favourite palaces, for the festivities. The celebrations at court were not just reserved for those close to the king, with the chronicler, Edward Hall, recording that an abundance of foods were served 'to all comers of any honest behaviour' - such generosity was on a scale that was rarely seen.

As usual, the main focus of the celebrations was on New Year. For Henry and his queen, Catherine of Aragon, the celebration must have been somewhat bitter as on New Year's Day one year before the queen had given birth to the couple's first son, Henry, Prince of Wales, who had survived for only a few weeks. The couple put on a united front, however, with a great pageant staged in the hall at Greenwich. A model of a castle, with gates, towers and a dungeon and laden with artillery 'after the most warlike fashion' was brought in, with six richly dressed ladies carried within. Once in the hall, the castle was brought Catherine for her approval, before the king entered with five companions, dressed to compliment the women. Henry and his companions then attacked the castle, with the ladies, seeing them 'so lusty and courageous' soon agreeing to yield the castle. The company then danced before the ladies led the knights inside the castle. The company were further amazed by a Tudor special effect when 'the castle suddenly vanished out of their sights'.

As was customary, the Christmas festivities continued until Twelfth Night, with the king taking part in a masque, dressed in Italian fashion. Once again, Henry and his companions danced with the queen and her ladies, before the Christmas festivities were brought to an end and the company departed to their beds.

Christmas Day 1011 - 1000 Years Ago
Christmas 1011 would not have been as merry for King Aethelred II of England. By 1011, the country had been largely overrun by Viking invaders. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that the attackers 'travelled about everywhere in bands and raided and roped up and killed our wretched people'. In September 1011, the Vikings besieged Canterbury, the centre of the church in England, capturing Archbishop Aelfheah and overrunning the town. The capture of the archbishop, who was led onto one of the raiders' ships was a further blow to the country, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recording that 'he who was earlier the head of the English race and of Christendom was a roped thing. There wretchedness might be seen where earlier was seen bliss, in that wretched town from where there first came to us Christendom and bliss before God and before the world'.
 The archbishop spent his Christmas as a prisoner of the Vikings. Archbishop Aelfheah was a pious man and refused to pay any ransom or to allow a ransom to be paid on his behalf. Finally on 19 April 1012, furious with him, and drunk, Aelfheah's captors pelted him with animal bones and then bludgeoned him with the butt of an axe.

The martyrdom of the Archbishop of Canterbury was just one of a series of disasters in Aethelred's reign. Soon after Christmas 1013, Aethelred himself abandoned his kingdom, joining his wife and children in exile in Normandy. He returned to England the following year after the death of the Viking leader, Sweyn Forkbeard, but died in 1016 beset by rebellion from his eldest son, Edmund II, and an invasion from Cnut, the son of Sweyn Forkbeard

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Reigning Queens

Following the announcement of an impending royal baby, I was interviewed yesterday on BBC Three Counties radio to discuss reigning queens (Roberto Perrone show, available on the BBC I-player at It was recently agreed that the eldest child of Prince William will succeed to the throne, regardless of whether they are male or female. The legislation to bring this into force has not yet been enacted but it does look as though this baby, if a girl, will become queen, regardless of whether or not she has younger brothers.

Reigning queens enjoy a special status amongst English monarchs, with Elizabeth I, Victoria and the current queen largely considered to have been successful and memorable. Part of this must be due to longevity, but Henry III, Edward III and George III (all of whom enjoyed long reigns) are not similarly revered. Their gender certainly helped to endear them to their people and build a mythology: Mary I and her sister, Elizabeth I, both claimed to be wedded to their countries, a claim that a male king never felt the need to make. Perhaps in the popular perception women are considered better able to symbolise their country and an era. This was somewhat unexpected and there was widespread dread at the prospect of female rule in the mid-sixteenth century when Edward VI's death began to look likely.

The new baby, even if it is a girl, may not succeed for a very long time: 'her' grandfather has already waited over sixty years. She probably wont have to wait as long as another heiress to the English crown, Sophia of Hannover, who died in June 1714 at the age of 83, only weeks before she would have succeeded to the throne.