Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Enduring Myth of Anastasia

I'm proud to share a story I wrote for Town & Country on Grand Duchess Anastasia. Why, a century later, do we still want to believe the Bolshevik slaughter of the Romanov royal family in 1918? I dug into the history, reading a great many books and looking up newspaper stories. I visited a Russian cathedral on the Upper East side of Manhattan, talking to a "White Russian," and interviewed the lyricist who wrote songs for the musical on Anastasia that opened yesterday.

Read the entire story here.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Hans Holbein and the Politics of Art

By Nancy Bilyeau

Just two years into the reign of James I, a Dutch painter and poet named Karel van Mander toured Whitehall Palace and came upon something truly memorable: a large wall mural of two generations of Tudors. Dominating the nine foot by twelve foot mural was the long-dead Henry VIII. At his side was his third wife, Jane Seymour; above the couple were his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.

Whitehall mural, a 17th century painting reproduction

Van Mander was stunned. He wrote that Henry VIII "stood there, majestic in his splendor...so lifelike that the spectator felt abashed, annihilated in his presence."

Lifelike. This was the supreme achievement of the mural's creator, Hans Holbein. then and now. Peter Ackroyd has written, "He illustrates his sitters in the light of some sudden but characteristic emotion, as if he had caught their thought on the wing."

Hans Holbein the Younger

It is in part because of Holbein that we feel we know the Tudor personalities, from Henry VIII and Jane Seymour to Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell to a baby Prince Edward. But do we really know Holbein?

It seems to us now as if Hans Holbein the Younger was always there, the favorite, the prize artist of the king. But in fact his artistic reign was fairly brief. He did not become "court painter" until shortly before painting that famous mural. It had taken years to win the trust of Henry VIII and secure royal commissions. Just three years after the Whitehall mural, he was under a cloud because of his painting of Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Three years after that, he was dead.

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Hans Holbein was born in 1497 in Augsburg, now the third largest city in Bavaria, Germany. Then it was a "free Imperial city" within the Holy Roman Empire, faithful to emperor and pope. Hans Holbein the Elder came from a family of talented artists and made sure to teach his son everything he knew. The father painted mostly altarpieces, church windows and other religious works--in the late medieval age, this was where artists found their majority of paying work.

Martin Luther transformed Germany--and then the rest of Christendom--when he challenged papal authority in 1517, nailing his 95 theses to the door of the castle church of Wittenerg. Two years earlier, Hans and his older brother Ambrosius had moved to the thriving Swiss city of Basel to work as journeyman painters. He created portraits and murals and designed woodcuts for printers. But soon enough Hans Holbein was engulfed in Luther's revolution.

Dance of Death, the Abbot

Holbein's cover of the Luther bible

It is in his woodcuts that Hans Holbein the Younger gives some indication of his religious beliefs. He designed the title page of Martin Luther's bible. And he created woodcuts for The Dance of Death, an eerie series of drawings showing a skeleton reaching for people across every level of society: merchant, king, abbess, old woman---and pope. Death came to everyone, high or low, was the message.

But in the first of several ironies, when Holbein came to England, his sponsor was Sir Thomas More, known for his hatred of Luther and determination to destroy the books written by those who wanted to reform the church.

Holbein departed from Basel in 1526, leaving a wife and children behind. Religious commissions had dried up as Lutheranism ignited. No one wanted altarpieces anymore. To earn enough money to live--and to, hopefully, find fame--he'd need to establish himself in a foreign court. He tried France first, but nothing happened. The famous Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus, whom Holbein had painted at least twice, gave him a letter of recommendation to be given to Sir Thomas More, a fellow Humanist and one of the most valued councilors of Henry VIII.

Sir Thomas More

Holbein may have lived in More's Chelsea home for a time. What is known for certain is that he painted a famous portrait of Sir Thomas as well as many of his family members. More raved about the artist's abilities in a letter to Erasmus. If he knew about Holbein's belief in religious reform, he'd decided to overlook it.

 In 1529 Sir Thomas More became chancellor of England. It would seem that Holbein couldn't have picked a better patron.

But More was devoted to Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and although he tried hard to avoid it, he got caught up in the Great Matter of the king's divorce. More did not have a high opinion of Anne Boleyn, who would eventually become Henry's second queen, and could not swear an oath of supremacy to king over pope. In 1532 he resigned as chancellor, in anguish, claiming illness.

Holbein was not damaged by his patron's fall from power because he'd returned to Basel, to his family and his circle of artist friends. But this was no place for an artist. The pendulum had swung so far in Basel that religious reformers were destroying statues and works of art in churches. It is believed that some of Holbein's paintings were burned in the rages of iconoclasm. Holbein decided to go  back to England. Before he left, he painted his wife, looking undeniably sad.

Holbein's wife and two of their children

There was a whole new group running the Tudor court in 1533, and Holbein headed for the top. His new patron? The stylish Anne Boleyn. He designed decorations for her coronation; pieces of jewelry; and several silver cups. It is believed that he painted Queen Anne's portrait, but after her fall, Henry VIII had many images of his second wife destroyed. One that survives is a sketch of Anne signed by Holbein.

The Ambassadors

Perhaps the greatest contribution Anne made to the legacy of Holbein was sponsoring his painting The Ambassadors, considered his master work. The strongest clue that Anne commissioned the work is that on a table between the two Frenchmen is a wooden cylinder used to determine dates. Visible is April 11, the day that the court was officially told that Anne Boleyn would be awarded royal honors.

Holbein's sketch of Anne Boleyn

Anne's execution in May 1536 could have led to Holbein's downfall. Instead, he shifted again, becoming the favored painter of Henry VIII himself and Thomas Cromwell, who many believe concocted the charges against Anne of adultery and incest.

Henry VIII, the year Anne Boleyn was executed

Holbein painted Jane Seymour, Anne Boleyn's prim-looking replacement as queen, and the family mural in Whitehall. He received the all-important commissions to paint the king himself and his heir, Prince Edward. He painted Cromwell. This was when Holbein's status at court became official and he earned an annual salary of thirty pounds.

Jane Seymour died the same year that the mural was painted. Henry VIII was reluctant to marry a foreign princess without having any idea of what she looked like. So Holbein was sent to various courts to paint the candidates: France, Flanders, Germany.

Anne of Cleves

In Cleves, he painted Anne, the older sister of Duke William, and Henry was charmed by her appearance. Yet from almost the moment he set eyes on her when she arrived, days before their wedding, he loathed Anne of Cleves. "I like her not," the king declared.

Did Holbein, the artist celebrated for his lifelike images, over-flatter Anne of Cleves in his painting? Did he feel pressure from Cromwell, who supported the marriage alliance to a German power, to make her look more attractive than she was? Cromwell was arrested and then executed in 1540, and one of the reasons for his shocking fall from power was that Henry felt his minister had bungled his fourth marriage. "I am not well handled," the king said, menacingly.

Thomas Cromwell

Did Holbein handle his part well? Others have said that Anne of Cleves' painting must have been accurate because, unlike Cromwell, Holbein was not punished in the fallout of the Cleves divorce. Which is strictly true. But Hans Holbein did not receive any more high profile royal commissions. He concentrated on private commissions, such as miniatures of various members of the nobility, like Katherine Willoughby, the young wife of the Duke of Suffolk.

In late 1543 at the age of 45, Hans Holbein died, perhaps of the plague, in London. He left a will, written in haste. His debts were settled and some of his monies went to the care of the children in Basel he had left behind. His grave is unmarked.

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Sources:

Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More

Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

Thurley, Simon, Whitehall Palace: An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments, 1240-1690

Weir, Alison, Henry VIII: The King and His Court

Wolf, Norbert, Hans Holbein the Younger, the German Raphael

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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical thrillers set in the time of Henry VIII. The protagonist is a Dominican novice. Her trilogy, The CrownThe Chalice, and The Tapestry, is on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, and Germany.



* This blog post originally ran on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Truth About Elizabeth of York

"The White Princess" brings Elizabeth of York center stage. For Town of Country I wrote about what the Starz miniseries gets right about the real Elizabeth of York and Henry VII--and what it gets wrong.





There's an interesting interplay going on between this series and Game of Thrones. The marriage of Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor ended the Wars of the Roses, the long, bloody medieval conflict that many believe George R. R. Martin used as his basis for the fantasy series. Now, with "The White Princess," you can see the influence of Game of Thrones. Not just with casting: Michelle Fairley, the beloved Catelyn Stark, plays Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort. But even the visuals of the shows evoke Game of Thrones, as you can see here:

The White Princess


Game of Thrones
 
 

Read my story for Town & Country on Elizabeth of York here.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

When Frankenstein Met The Earl of Surrey

By Nancy Bilyeau

This is a story of magic and monsters, of poets and parents, and writers with enormous dreams and very little money.

Picture this: Young Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, known as the "poet earl" for his brilliant literary innovations in the mid-16th century, wanders through Europe in great style, tended to by servants and accompanied by learned and amusing friends. Nonetheless, Surrey pines for his ravishing mistress, Geraldine, left behind in England.

Henry Howard, earl of Surrey

In a sonnet, Surrey had written :
"Bright is her hue, and Geraldine she hight:
Hampton me taught to wish her first for mine:
And Windsor, alas, doth chase me from her sight.
Her beauty of kind, her virtues from above;
Happy is he that can obtain her love."
One day, in Italy, the lovesick Surrey turned for a cure to one of his companions, German-born Cornelius Agrippa, who, besides being a scholar, physician and soldier, was an astrologer and student of the occult. Agrippa "was one of the most celebrated men of his time...but he was a man of the most violent passions and of great instability of temper."

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

Agrippa possessed the ability to summon up apparitions for his friends, often displaying them in a crystal glass. One day, to please the Renaissance humanist Erasmus, he'd summoned an image of Tully, giving an oration in ancient Rome. For Sir Thomas More, Agrippa delivered "the whole destruction of Troy in a dream."

Surrey longed to see the faraway Geraldine, and Agrippa complied. In the "magical glass," Surrey saw the "beautiful dame, sick, weeping upon her bed, and inconsolable for the absence of her admirer." The Howard heir was distraught.

This is a story that appeared in a chapter devoted to Agrippa in William Godwin's Lives of the Necromancers, published in 1834. And ever since, puzzled historians and biographers and literary critics have tried to figure out if there is one true thing in it.

A necromancer is a wizard, a seer, someone who can conjure the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events. Godwin's book begins with divination from the ancient times, moves through the Old Testament seers, Roman oracles and the "Arabian Nights," picks up speed in medieval times with Bacon and Magnus before concentrating on the Renaissance necromancers: Agrippa, Paracelsus, Faustus, John Dee, Nostradamus. Then it's time for the Lancashire witches and King James I's demonology before finishing up with the witches of New England. Whew.

The fact that Godwin, the revered writer of the book Political Justice and the novel Caleb Williams, wrote a tome about centuries of necromancers is bizarre. But that's not the only strange and remarkable aspect. Godwin was the devoted father of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. And in that famous horror novel, it is the 16th century writings of Agrippa that obsess a young student named Victor Frankenstein, leading him to create a living man from the parts of the dead.

 
             This first edition of Shelley's 'Frankenstein' sold for $175,000 in auction in 2015.

Before we continue, it must be acknowledged: The story of Agrippa revealing Geraldine to Surrey is fishy. Not that they weren't real people. Surrey, the first cousin of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, is famous in his own right: He and his friend Sir Thomas Wyatt were the first English poets to write in the sonnet form.

As for Agrippa, born in Cologne, he mastered six languages and studied medicine and law as well as the work of the Humanists. Alchemy was his passion, and he believed "magic comprises the most profound contemplation of the most secret things, their nature, power, quality, substance and virtues." He published De Occulta Philosophia, three volumes on magic. The lives of Agrippa and Surrey overlapped by 19 years, but the story of their meeting and traveling together in Italy is almost certainly not true. Moreover, Godwin may have known that ... but found it impossible to resist throwing it in the pot. More on Godwin later!

The facts: The charismatic Surrey was executed for treason in 1546. Henry VIII had grown acutely paranoid about the Howard family's pretensions to the throne. Surrey was the biggest threat because he had royal blood through his mother, Elizabeth Stafford, the oldest daughter of the third Duke of Buckingham, another arrogant charmer who lost his head to Bluff King Hal.

The sonnet "Description and Praise of His Love Geraldine" is one of Surrey's finest. Sir Walter Scott and Michael Drayton would later pay homage to its romantic power. But their being a real, devouring love behind the poem is also just too good to be true. The girl in the poem is thought to be based on a real female: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, daughter of Gerald Fitzgerald, ninth earl of Kildare. But when he wrote it, she was at most 10 years of age.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, aka Geraldine, after marrying

The aristocratic Fitzgerald family came from Ireland to London in 1533, when Elizabeth was six years old, and she and her brother became playmates to Henry VIII's children. Her father, however, was imprisoned in the Tower of London for corruption; he died there "of grief" in 1534. It is thought that a sympathetic Surrey wrote the sonnet in 1537 for the 10-year-old girl to improve her chances of someday making a good marriage.

So Surrey and Genevieve weren't really in love and Surrey never traveled through Italy. It's settled. Yet, nonetheless, Agrippa conjuring up Geraldine in a magic glass for Surrey is a story that kept showing up in art and letters. Watercolour painter Edward Corbould, favorite of Prince Albert, was the toast of London with his "The Earl of Surrey Beholding the Fayre Geraldine in the Magic Mirror."

Corbould's famous painting


The origin of this story can be traced to a book written after Surrey's death, from the quill of another author of the 16th century, the sort of talented rapscallion that keeps surfacing in our narrative. Thomas Nashe, a parson's son, became a leading Elizabethan playwright, poet and satirical pamphleteer. In his book The Unfortunate Traveller, published in 1594, a man named Jack Wilton rollicks through Europe, surviving many adventures and meeting famous people as if he were a Tudor-era Zelig. Some of the stories in the novel are based on real events, such as the Peasant Revolt in Germany. One of the people Wilton meets is the Earl of Surrey, and while traveling together they encounter Agrippa and his magic crystal. Geraldine revealed!

Nashe, a friend of Ben Johnson's, is thought to be one of the contributors to Henry VI, Part 1, published under William Shakespeare's name. On the opposite end of the prestige spectrum, he wrote erotica such as the notorious The Choice of Valentines, about a trip to a brothel. In response to the outraged criticism over his writing the 50 Shades of its day, Nashe penned this: "When the bottom of my purse is turned downward and my conduit of ink will no flower flow for want of reparations, I am faine to let my Plow stand still in the midst of a furrow."

Nashe was dead by 1601. A friend's epitaph: 
 "Let all his faults sleepe with his mournful chest/And there forever with his ashes rest/His style was wittie, though it had some gall/Some things he might have mended, so may all/Yet this I say, that for a mother witt/Few men have ever seene the like of it."
Surrey's stature grew in the pantheon of Renaissance literature over the next two hundred years ... and so did doubts about the Agrippa anecdote described by Nashe.  One early Surrey biographer pointed out that, aside from Geraldine being nine years old when the sonnet was being composed, "it is unlikely Howard was ever in Italy because he never made any mention of it." In the 16th century--no surprise--traveling around Europe was difficult even if you had money. The promise of the Grand Tour dangled far in the future.

And so we come to the Godwin family.



William Godwin's early life was a bit like Nashe's.  His austere Calvinist father was a Nonconformist minister in Norwich; Godwin was the seventh of thirteen children. He made his way to London in his twenties and, living hand to mouth,  joined a circle of young philosophers, poets and revolutionaries such as William Blake and Thomas Paine. In 1793 he published Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, an enormously influential book that decried government and urged people to use their own reason to plan their actions. Godwin is today considered the founder of political anarchism.

Godwin fell in love with a fellow author and spirited revolutionary, Mary Wollstonecraft, a passionate believer in the rights of women who had an illegitimate child and suicide attempts in her own past. She died days after giving birth to their only child, the future Mary Shelley.

As the death toll of the French Revolution became more known, those who called for anarchy became less popular. Godwin, remarried, saw sales of his books begin to decline. He started a publishing business but it failed, nearly sending Godwin, a hopeless businessman, to debtors' prison. Friends rescued him with loans.

Mary Godwin Shelley

Through it all, he devoted himself to the education of his daughter. Mary not only studied literature and languages but was surrounded by her father's scientist friends, chemists and surgeons who were fascinated by the notion of "animal electricity," also known as "galvanism," the study of muscle contractions causing an electrical current.

Godwin was furious and heartbroken when Mary, 17, ran away with the married poet Percy Shelley. London gossip snickered that Godwin had courted Shelley, heir to a fortune, because he was desperate for a patron for his strained writing life, and "sold" his child to the dissolute young man. It was definitely untrue.

It's well known that when Mary, Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori gathered at the Villa Diodati  in 1816, competing to see who could pen  the best ghost story, the talk was of the occult, of alchemists and necromancers. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley gave direct credit to Agrippa for setting things in motion. She wrote of her main character, a young student, coming across a book:
"Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate. I desire, therefore, in this narration, to state those facts which led to my predilection for that science. When I was thirteen years old, we all went on a party of pleasure to the Baths near Thoneo. The inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to this inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate, and the wonderful facts which he relates, soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind..."
The student's fate was set. One day Victor Frankenstein would use "natural philosophy" to create life.

In mid-April 1817, Mary Shelley finished her fair copy of the novel. Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus was published in 1818, to mixed reviews. After her husband drowned in 1822, Mary returned to England. She became close again with her father, whose book sales foundered further as Frankenstein gained strength. Mary thrived as a writer and editor, and eventually helped to support her father financially. She wrote a friend in 1831 she was "full of disquietude for my father, who lives by his pen."

William Godwin, in later life

Godwin, although he'd written more than a dozen books, did not have a publisher when he created Lives of the Necromancers. It took him two years to find one for it, even though Mary was exerting personal pressure on editors and publishers she knew. Everyone rejected it. Finally, an obscure London publisher, Andrew Mason, took the book in 1834. (In his chapter on Agrippa, Godwin conceded that the "sole authority" for the Surrey section was Nashe. The episode is followed by tales of black-cat familiars and dangerous potions.)

The book found fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe,in particular, enjoyed its treatment of magic and superstition.

Poe, who hated just about everything, praised Lives of the Necromancers in Southern Literary Messenger, saying, "No English writer with whom we have any acquaintance, with the single exception of Coleridge, has a fuller appreciation of the value of words." Poe continued:
"Unlike the work of Brewster, the Necromancy of Mr. Godwin is not a Treatise on Natural Magic. It does not pretend to show the manner in which delusion acts upon mankind — at all events, this is not the object of the book. The design, if we understand it, is to display in their widest extent, the great range and wild extravagancy of the imagination of man. It is almost superfluous to say that in this he has fully succeeded. His compilation is an invaluable work, evincing much labor and research, and full of absorbing interest."


Edgar Allan Poe

(More recently, biographers have studied the book as proof of the shared interests of Mary Shelley and William Godwin. Some critics are rather baffled, trying to decide whether Godwin was mocking the gullible or celebrating mystical beliefs.)

Lives of the Necromancers was the last book written by William Godwin. In 1833, in recognition of his body of work, the Whig government granted him a pension of 200 pounds a year and a modest home in New Palace Yard. In April 1834, at the age of 80, he caught a cough and died, his daughter by his side. At his request, Godwin was buried next to his long-dead first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft.

The books of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley have never gone out of print.

And neither have the books of magic written by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa.

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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of mysteries set in the 16th century: The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry. for sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain. The Crown was an Oprah pick: "The real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of murder, lust, conspiracy and betrayal."  The Chalice won the RT Reviewers Award for Best Historical Mystery. The Tapestry was released in paperback in March 2016. For more information, go here.