A Mountain of Crumbs

“We don’t have the word ‘privacy’ in Russian.  It simply doesn’t exist.  We do have seclusion, though, as well as isolation.”

For some reason, that quote imbedded itself in my mind as I was reading A Mountain of Crumbs, an autobiography by Elena Gorokhova. It was spoken by Elena’s English tutor when she was first starting her foray into the language.  Elena was born in 1955 in Leningrad (formerly and presently known as St. Petersburg). This book chronicles her childhood and early adulthood, up until she married an American at age 24 whom she had met in a Russian class she had taught over the summer (they divorced shortly thereafter and she’s been married to another American for almost 30 years now).

A central theme in the book was vranyo, which translates to ‘lies.’  Apparently, everyone in the Soviet Union played this game of vranyo; pretending that they trusted the government, believed entirely in socialism, and really felt that they had the best future in all the world.  The people in Elena’s parents’ generation (who had been born right around the Revolution) may have actually believed what the state wanted them to, and there were many of Elena’s generation who felt no need to rock the boat, but there seem to have been a large number of people who knew that they were being lied to, who knew that life was really not much better than it had ever been, and who wanted to get out.

I will say that I was a little disappointed by the contents of the book. The stories were all relevant, mostly entertaining, and almost all uniquely Soviet, but transitions and depth seemed to be lacking.  A major plot of the story was supposed to be Elena’s obsession with the English language and how learning it changed her life, but you never really see that love develop.  One summer she’s being tutored in English, then she’s taking an exam to get into an English-speaking middle school in a chapter which ends in a cliffhanger, and then you’re left to assume that she got into the school because an English class is briefly mentioned a couple chapters later. She gets into an English program at a University, is a tour guide for British students one summer, and teaches American students Russian one summer, but it’s all presented in a fairly matter-of-fact way so that you can’t really sense her supposed obsession.

It definitely wasn’t a bad book, but if I wasn’t interested in Russia/Russian and hadn’t been to St. Petersburg, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it quite as much as I did.  I really loved when she would go into descriptions about certain places or things like traveling on the metro and I would know exactly what she was talking about, because things haven’t really changed in 20-30+ years.  There’s been major progress since the fall of the Iron Curtain, of course, and obviously certain monuments/museums aren’t going to change, but it’s both interesting and sad that several of the things which should have changed, apparently haven’t.


Catching up

I’ve been really lazy about blogging about the biographies I’ve read, but now that I literally have no work to do, I’ll just do little paragraphs summing the women up.  I’d give them each their own post, but they honestly weren’t that interesting.  I mean, they weren’t boring, but I wasn’t exactly riveted by their tales….

Joanna I of Naples

Joanna was born in 1328 and was Queen of Naples from 1343 until her death in 1382.  She was the first woman to rule in her own right, with her husband Andrew only named Royal Consort.  Andrew was assassinated in 1345 (under Joanna’s orders, many believe) and she married three more times.  Her three children all died young.  He reign was marked by political struggles between members of her own family as well as between Naples and Rome (re: the Pope).  At one point Joanna had to flee her country because Louis of Hungary had invaded, and she later had to pay the Pope in order to return to Naples, after he acquitted her of participating in Andrew’s murder.  During the Papal Schism, Joanna chose the less popular side and was branded a heretic and excommunicated.  Her nephew Charles, with Hungarian support, advanced on Naples, cornering Joanna.  When her fourth husband was unable to come to her aid, she was forced to surrender.  She was murdered in captivity.

Jane Boleyn

Jane Boleyn (nee Parker) married Anne Boleyn’s brother, George.  She became Anne’s chief confidante and was very committed to helping the family rise.  After all, her fortunes were linked with theirs.  But when Henry VIII tired of Anne, Jane was brought in for questioning.  The councilors interrogated and threatened her until she “confessed” that Anne had slept with several men, including George.  There is no proof that Anne would do something so stupid, but the truth was secondary to the King’s wishes.  Jane stayed on Henry’s good side by being cooperative, and after her husband and sister-in-law were executed, she attained a position in Queen Jane’s household.  She was also present to greet Queen Anne (the “Flanders mare”), and then was given a prominent role in Queen Katherine’s household.  Queen Katherine was a young girl (some sources say as young as 17, but 20 is more probable).  Henry VIII, by this time, was a fat, old man, to put it bluntly.  Jane helped facilitate a relationship between Katherine and Thomas Culpepper, one of the King’s grooms.  Some claim this relationship was purely for pleasure, others say that it was also a desperate attempt to get pregnant.  Considering that two previous Queens had been discarded for failing to produce an heir, pregnancy was an important thing, and Henry often couldn’t perform.  The deception was discovered and both Jane and Katherine were arrested.  Jane went insane in prison and a special bill had to be passed to allow her execution, which took place right after Katherine’s.

Katherine Swynford

Katherine Swynford was born in 1360 to a Flemish herald and his wife.  She served in the house of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster from an early age, and married one of his knights, Hugh Swynford, around 1366.  Katherine became the governess of John of Gaunt’s two daughters.  After John’s wife died, he entered a political marriage with the displaced Queen of Castile.  Shortly afterwards, Katherine became his mistress.  She had four bastard children by him who were later legitimized.  After the Queen of Castile died, John married Katherine, sparking controversy.  It was accepted that lords often took mistresses, but to marry one was unheard of, especially since Katherine was a commoner.  The descendants of John and Katherine would found the Tudor and Stuart dynasties.

The Six Queens

The next biography I read was Sovereign Ladies by Maureen Waller.  It’s about the six reigning Queens of England, and is worth reading if you don’t know much of anything about them, but it leaves out a lot (understandably, since each of these Queens is worthy of her own 600 page biography).

Mary Tudor: Mary I (18 February 1516 – 17 November 1558)

Mary I, Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, is the first queen.  After her brother, Edward, died, Northumberland tried to usurp the crown for his Protestant daughter Jane Grey.  Mary rallied her own supporters however, and took back her birth right.  She hesitated to put Jane to death at first, knowing she had merely been a pawn of her parents’ agenda, but eventually had no choice after various uprisings used her as a figurehead.

Mary married Phillip of Spain when she was in her late 30s and he was in his 20s.  She was ecstatic, he and the people of England were not.  Phillip slept with her only when he had no choice, and spent most of the time abroad leading battles in the Spanish Netherlands.  Mary suffered two mortifying phantom pregnancies during their marriage.  She’s remembered for the loss of Calais to the French after Phillip had pressured her to join the long-standing Franco-Spanish conflict, and for the burning of Protestants under her reign.  Though, to be fair, only a few hundred were murdered this way, while thousands died in the civil wars in France and during the Spanish Inquisition.  Sure, that was a few hundred too many, but scale-wise, it was almost nothing.  On her deathbed, Mary was reluctant to name Elizabeth as her successor, but eventually was convinced, after getting Elizabeth to “promise” to uphold the Catholic religion.

Elizabeth Tudor:  Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603)

I’m sure almost everyone knows about Elizabeth I, so I’ll try to keep this brief (hard to do, considering her extraordinary life).  She was her brother’s favorite, but her sister’s perceived enemy.  In order to keep her head she had to pretend to be a Catholic while Mary was alive (though everyone knew she was a fervent Protestant).  It took her great acting skills to convince Mary that she had truly changed.  Though, whether Mary really believed this is debatable: it’s possible she just recognized how popular Elizabeth was with the people, and to execute her would be to incite rebellion.

Elizabeth ascended after Mary, inheriting a bankrupt country.  She pulled out of the war with France while maintaining cordial relations with Spain, and undid many of Mary’s religious laws.  Unlike her father and sister, Elizabeth saw religious tolerance as the best way to save England from the civil wars dividing France.  It worked.  Not even the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (the devout Catholic) generated much prolonged fury.

Throughout her long reign she worked tirelessly to promote herself as England’s wife and mother, brushing off suggestions that she marry.  Her virginity would come to represent the impregnability of England,  especially after the defeat of the Spanish Armada (which was actually more due to bad weather than English tactics).

All in all, she was a very successful Queen, proving that women were capable of ruling (though she did nothing to promote the advancement of women).  She turned England back into a world power from a broke nothing.  She manipulated other monarchs and nobles effortlessly, and frustrated them by refusing to name an heir.  She knew what it was like to be heir–it meant being the figurehead of those who disliked the present monarch, and Elizabeth wasn’t willing to risk an uprising.  When she died in 1603, James of Scotland (Mary of Scots’ son, but a Protestant) ascended and the Tudor dynasty ended.

Mary Stuart: Mary II (30 April 1662 – 28 December 1694)

Mary Stuart was the niece of King Charles II, who had reclaimed the throne of England after a brief period of republicanism.  She was the daughter of  James, Duke of York (brother to the king) and Anne Hyde, a commoner he had met while in his brother’s exiled court.  She and her sister Anne were the only two of eight children to survive infancy.  The two were made children of the state in 1668 after their father converted to Catholicism.  When she was fifteen she married William, Prince of Orange, and moved to the Netherlands, a country she came to adore.  Their marriage is often portrayed as unhappy, but they seemed to be content.  The only trouble was Mary’s inability to have children.  Her three pregnancies ended in miscarriage or stillbirth.

Charles II died in 1685 and James ascended as King James II.  In 1688, William led a coup for the crown, driving James II, his second wife, and their son (who the Protestants claimed was a changling, and not a legitimate child) into exile.  William wouldn’t be content to simply be Mary’s consort, so they had a joint-monarchy.  Except, it wasn’t joint at all.  Mary was Queen only in name, William had all power, and would remain King even if Mary died.

William was away on military campaigns often, leaving Mary to rule as regent.  Though her education was limited, she was a firm and fair ruler.  She didn’t even balk from arresting her own uncle for plotting to restore James II.  She donated great sums to the College of William and Mary in Virginia and founded The Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich.

Compared to someone like Elizabeth, Mary II seems a bit insignificant.  She yielded all power to her husband and Council, rarely making polical decisions without checking with one or both first. She was a great patron however, and helped restore some of the dignity of the monarchy.  She died of smallpox in 1694, leaving William to rule alone for another 8 years.

Anne Stuart: Anne I (6 February 1665 – 1 August 1714)

Anne was Mary II’s sister, though the two had a falling out over political differences after Mary became Queen.

when she was 18, Anne married Prince George of Denmark, though the two remained in England, something Anne would use as propaganda later against the “Dutch Abortioners” (William and Mary).  Anne was a fervent Protestant, and possibly behind the rumor that her step-mother’s pregnancy was fake–a plot by the Catholic faction to keep Catholic rulers on the throne.  She was also heavily involved in William’s coup and the overthrow of her father, encouraging her husband to support the Prince of Orange in his endeavor.

Anne had even worse trouble than Mary when it came to producing offspring–though Anne’s problems were probably more heartbreaking.  Mary couldn’t get pregnant, Anne had been pregnant 18 times by 1700.  13 had resulted in miscarriages or stillbirths, four of the five surviving children died before age two, and her beloved son died at age 11.

Anne ascended to the throne in 1702; her husband was content to be her consort, so the co-regency of William and Mary was not repeated.  During her reign, two party politics became prevalent (Whigs v. Tories) and the absolute power of the monarch waned.  Anne preferred Tories, but tried to be fair and appointed an equal number of each into positions of power.  Power struggles between the two parties would lead to numerous court scandals, falling outs, and threats.

On of the triumphs of Anne’s reign was the union of Scotland and England into Great Britain, passed by Parliament in 1707.  Her husband died a year later and she grieved deeply.

Though she succeeded in Ireland, she was failing with Spain.  Her councilors had advised her to continue a long, expensive, and unpopular war with Spain, and her image (and the image of the monarchy itself) suffered.  The matter was finally resolved in 1711 when Anne created 12 new peers (nobles) to erase the Whig majority in Parliament and allow the passage of a peace treaty.

Like Mary’s, Anne’s reign was short and highlighted a declining monarchy.  She presided over a great era of change, but it was more the actions of Parliament and the party leaders who spurred it than her own.  All the pregnancies from before she was crowned had ruined her health, and she spent much time preoccupied with that, leaving ministers to run the country.

Anne was the last of the Stuart monarchs.  After her came her cousin, George I, of the House of Hanover.

Alexandrina Victoria Hanover: Victoria I (24 May 1819 – 22 January 1901)

Victoria was the daughter of Prince Edward of Kent, 3rd in line to the English throne behind his three heir-less brothers.  No one paid much attention the her, as it was believe she was too far down the succession to ever wear the crown.  Her father died when she was 8 months old and she spent her childhood dominated by her mother, raised in near isolation in Kensington.  Her mother and her mother’s lover, Conroy, attempted to make Victoria completely dependent on them, planning to rule the country through her as it became more clear that she would ascend.  But Victoria’s will was too strong for that–even when she was desperately ill she refused to bend to their pressure to grant them regency if the King should die before she reached her majority (which they tried to prolong from 18 to 21).  Luckily for everyone, Victoria turned 18 one month before she became Queen.

She was very independent–constantly testing the boundaries of the well established constitutional monarchy.  For example, monarchs were supposed to be apolitical and appoint an equal number of attendants from each party, but Victoria made her entire household Whigs, creating a major scandal.  She initially didn’t want to marry, but then fell in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (it didn’t hurt his case that marriage was the only way she could remove her mother from her household without creating another scandal).  Victoria was helplessly devoted to him and the two had 9 children together.

Albert’s death in 1861 plunged her into a prolonged mourning which would damage the image of the monarchy as she refused to take part in official events.  Citizens began to question why they were paying for the upkeep of the royal family if they never even got to see the queen. Her isolation didn’t end until over 15 years later, when she began attending public functions (such as the opening of hospitals) again.  Just as she had been wildly popular in the beginning of her reign, she became wildly popular again, and people conveniently seemed to forget the long period of unpopularity.

Under Victoria, the modern constitutional monarchy was established with the passing of several laws through Parliament which extended voting rights to more citizens, lessening the monarch’s ability to influence MP appointments.  As her role became less political and more symbolic, she placed a strong emphasis on morality, family values, thriftiness, and the advancement of the lower classes.  This was a huge contrast to the sexual and financial scandals of monarchs past.  Through the marriages of her 9 children and 42 grandchildren to various heads of state, she became known as the “Grandmother of Europe.”  Unfortunately, another legacy of hers was the hemophilia that would plague so many of these rulers and their children.

Victoria died in 1901 at age of 81, after nearly 64 years on the throne.  To date, she’s the longest reigning English monarch.  Her death ended the House of Hanover, giving way to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (which would be renamed the House of Windsor by George V in 1917).

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary: Elizabeth II (21 April 1926-)

The current queen, Elizabeth II, only had a small section.  She grew up very isolated from other children and the world in general, and under her the monarchy has lost even more power.  By her actions she gave up the ability of the monarch to appt the PM, and is notorious for showing no opinon and being willing to go along with what Parliament wants.  The monarch now pretty much only attends state functions in a ceremonial role.  She’s always put her country before her family, and it’s perhaps for this reason that her children are notoriously arrogant and undisciplined.  Their affairs, marriages, and “morally degrading” actions have torn apart the image and mystique of the monarchy and many speculate that after Elizabeth, it may cease to exist.

The Mitford Sisters

The next  biography I read was about the six Mitford sisters.  Apparently they’re infamous in England, but I’d never heard of them.  One thing’s for sure though, this family was a whole lot of fun 🙂

The six were the daughters of Sydney and David Mitford (aka Lord and Lady Redesdale), who had married in 1904.  Sydney was somewhat cold and distant to her children, perhaps stemming from the fact that her own mother had died when she was a child, and she was raised by her father out on the family yacht.  David had horrible bursts of temper and wasn’t all that close with most of the kids either.

There were actually seven children in all (the sisters had a brother) and all but one sister lived extraordinary, entertaining lives.  The children grew up in modest circumstances, but without proper education.  The parents didn’t believe in the modern education system (just as they didn’t believe in modern medicine).  This became an explosive issue later in their lives.


The first born, Nancy was the mean-spirited sister.  She would mercilessly tease her siblings, instinctively knowing which barbs would hit home hardest.  But she somehow managed to balance that with immeasurable charisma and wit, which kept her in the hearts of her victims.  She greatly enjoyed being a debutante, and would lie to her parents in order to go out to parties with her friends.  But what irritated her parents the most was when she got her hair bobbed and wore trousers around the house.  From David’s reaction, you’d think she’d killed someone.

As she got older, her circle of friends began to include more and more members of the young socialist party of England.  It was this ideology Nancy would be dedicated to for the rest of her life though, as she once told her sister Decca, she and her friends were “more thinkers than actors.”  She spent many years trying to win the heart of a young man, Hamish.  It was futile, as he was gay (something everyone but Nancy seemed to know).  Fearing that she would become an old maid, Nancy married Peter Rodd, a womanizer she didn’t love. Neither partner was faithful and they separated on amicable terms in 1939, divorcing in 1958.  After WWII, Nancy moved to Paris and met the French soldier Palewski.  She fell completely in love, while he saw her as just a pleasant dalliance.  She would spend the rest of her life pining after him, even after he married a French divorcée whom he had also been involved with for several years.  Nancy is best known for her novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.  The characters were based off her own dysfunctional family and were a huge hit. She died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1973, after a long, painful illness.  Palewski was at her bedside.


The second oldest was Pam.  She was called “the boring one” by her siblings, and comparatively, she was.  She lived a rather quiet life, earning the nickname “the most rural Mitford.”  She married Derek Jackson in 1936, though they divorced in 1951, and she spent the rest of her life with a woman.  Since she avoided the spotlight, much less is known about her than the others, but she was well liked by all who met her, and the famous English poet John Betjeman openly used her as a muse.


The only son of the family, Tom was also the only one always “on speakers” with all his other siblings.  Since the biography I read focused on the sisters, Tom wasn’t mentioned too much, but I did learn that he had slept with many boys while off at university, then slept with dozens and dozens of women to try to compensate for it.  He went abroad to learn German in Munich, and it was through one of his friends that Unity and Diana met Hitler.  He was killed in the Pacific during WWII.


Diana was the beauty of the family.  Her blonde hair and blue eyes led Hitler to describe her as “the perfect Aryan,” which she took as a huge compliment.  At 18 she became officially engaged to Bryan Guinness, heir to the brewing empire, as well as the barony of Moyne.  Her parents didn’t like the match at first, but were eventually persuaded.  Hers was the society wedding of the year in 1929.  The couple was extremely wealth and renowned for the lavish parties they hosted.  Their glamorous life came to an end, however, when Diana met Oswald Mosely, leader of the Fascist party in England.  She fell in love, divorcing her husband.  At the time, this amounted to social suicide, especially as Mosely was married and refused to leave his wife.  It was only in 1936, a few years after his wife’s death, that Mosely decided to marry Diana.  Hitler was present at the small ceremony.  Diana’s decision to divorce led to a brief estrangement with her entire family, and a permanent one with Decca.  In fact, only Debo and Pam seemed able to completely accept the situation, relations with the other sisters coming and going.

Diana had been introduced to Hitler in 1935 by her sister Unity, who was obsessively in love with the dictator and part of his inner circle.  Diana liked him from the start, and she and her sister were frequent guests of his.  Because of this connection, she and Mosely were imprisoned in England during WWII, and for a couple years afterwards.  After the war, Diana and Mosely got on with life as usual.  They had homes in Ireland, London, and Paris, and Mosely continued to be unfaithful to her, as he always had.  Like Nancy, Diana published some translations and two memoirs to earn income.  She died in 2003, at the age of 93.


I have to say, I found Unity to be the most interesting.  Her full name was Unity Valkyrie Mitford, and she was conceived in Swastika, Canada.  So it seems only fitting that she was a committed Nazi and hopelessly in love with Hitler.  She always lived to shock, often bringing pet rats or snakes to debutante balls.  She had been attracted to Fascism from a very early age, and traveled to Germany in 1933 to attend a Rally, where she first saw Hitler.  She returned to Munich the next year, enrolling in a language course.  She staked out the cafes Hitler was known to frequent, and after ten months the dictator became curious about the “Nordic Englishwoman” who was always alone, and always staring at him.  Their relationship blossomed from there, though there are doubts about whether it was sexual or not.  Unity certainly wouldn’t have said no, but reports state that Hitler wasn’t interested in that kind of thing.  He was already neglecting his mistress, Eva Braun, after all.  Another reason Hitler may have been interested in Unity (and Diana too) is that the Mitford family were cousins to the Churchill family.  In the end though, it seems that the two genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

Up until war was declared, Unity had been in denial about it, claiming that it could never happen.  She stated that if it ever did, she would kill herself, because she could not choose between England and Germany.  And that’s exactly what she tried to do.  In 1939 she went to a park in Munich and shot herself in the head.  Somehow she survived, though she incurred brain damage and had to be cared for by her mother back in England.  She was stuck at the mental age of 11 until her death in 1947 from meningitis caused by the swelling around the bullet (which had never been removed).

Jessica “Decca” (1917-1998)

What Unity felt about Fascism, Decca felt about Communism.  Strangely enough though, the two stayed close throughout their lives, never letting politics get in the way (though Decca shunned Diana for her views).  Out of all the sisters, she was the one who most detested her lack of proper education, something she never let her mother forget.  She was the “red sheep” of the family, and planned from a young age to run away.  In fact, when she was a teenager she opened a “running away” account at a local bank.  This would come in handy when she and her cousin, Esmond Romilly, eloped to Spain to help with the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was a fervent Communist who forbid Decca to communicate with her “Nazi family” more than necessary, and Unity was completely off limits (Decca ignored him in this respect).  The Romilly’s emigrated to the US, networking in DC and Florida.  Esmond joined the British Airforce in 1941, and was killed later that year.

Decca then fell in love with Bob Treuhaft, and the two eventually settled in California with Decca and Esmond’s daughter, and joined the US Communist Party.  They only left the party after the “red scare” in the 1950s, when they were called to testify before Congress.  It still took several years for them to receive passports so that they could visit the Mitfords in Europe.

Like Nancy, Decca was well known for her novels.  Hons and Rebels was a best selling memoir, and she also published several investigative works regarding birth and death in the US.  She died of lung cancer in 1998.

Deborah “Debo” 1920-

The youngest (and last surviving) Mitford is Debo.  She was the one who bore the brunt of her sibling’s actions.  She was at home for the fallout from Diana’s divorce, Unity’s public antisemitism, Decca’s elopement and political views, and the breakdown of her parent’s marriage due to politics as well(Sydney was pro-Hitler, David was not….).

Debo asserted from a very young age that she would become a Duchess, and that’s exactly what she did. She married Lord Andrew Cavendish in 1941, and after the death of his elder brother, she became the heir to the title Duchess of Devonshire (side note: the duchy of Devonshire was founded by Bess of Hardwick’s second husband, and their properties included Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth).  Compared to her radical sisters, Debo lived a quiet life. She was content to hunt, ride horses, and tend Chatsworth.  After Sydney’s death, Debo became the “mother” of the family, doing whatever she could to keep the peace.  She inherited writing genes as well, but puts her talents to use writing historical accounts of Chatsworth and other great houses in England, to try to ensure they are properly preserved.

Catherine de Medici

I finished reading about Catherine de Medici a few days ago, but just haven’t had time to blog about it. Now, however, it’s after 4 on a Friday at work and I’ve finished most of my work so rather than start on a new project for next week, I figure I’ll do this…..

Catherine de Medici was born in 1519 in Florence, and orphaned within 3 weeks. Catherine grew up in the household of her aunt, Clarice Strozzi. She was supposed to have gone to the French court, but the Pope Leo X (of the Medici) wanted her to marry his illegitimate nephew, so he kept her in Italy. In 1527 the Medici (who were the ruling family in Florence) were overthrown and Catherine was held as a hostage in a number of convents. The conditions were horrid, and had it not been for the influence of the new Pope Clement VII (also of the Medici) she would have been killed. She was liberated in 1531 when the Medici regained power. In 1533 she married Henry, Duke of Orleans, the second son of King Francis I of France. Even though she was a commoner, the French king was attracted by the promises of wealth her uncle, the Pope, promised, as well as the familial connection he would now have with the head of the Catholic church. Unfortunately for Francis, Clement died the next year, and the next Pope refused to pay the dowry.

Catherine was no beauty. She had inherited all the bad traits of her family—most noticeably large, bulging eyes and thin lips. She was as luckless in love as she was in looks. Henry rarely showed any interest in Catherine—neither as a wife nor a confidante. In fact, he openly took many mistresses, the last and longest lasting being Diane de Poitiers. She became his sole mistress when he was 19, and he adored her for the rest of his life. Catherine conceived no children during the first ten years of marriage, and the only reason she had any chance of conceiving at all was that Diane knew the Valois dynasty had to continue (since Henry’s older brother had died in 1536, leaving him heir to the throne), so she forced Henry to go to his wife’s bed regularly. He showed no interest in the task, leaving as soon as it was completed.

In 1544, Catherine gave birth to her first child, a son. In the next 12 years, she would give birth to ten children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. She outlived all but two.

Catherine was crowned Queen of France in 1549, but had little political sway. Henry appointed her regent a few times when he had to go abroad, but the title came with virtually no power. Instead it was Diane who stood in the center of power, dispensing patronage and accepting favors. Henry died in 1559 due to a fatal accident with a broken lance while taking part in a joust celebrating the marriage of the couple’s eldest daughter, Elisabeth, to King Phillip II of Spain (who had recently been widowed by Bloody Mary of England). From that day forward, Catherine took a broken lance as her emblem and wore black mourning for the rest of her life.

Francis II, married to Mary, Queen of Scots, became king at the age of 15, but for once Catherine had great say in what happened in her kingdom. One of her first acts was to order Diane de Poitiers to return the crown jewels of France, along with all properties of the crown which had been illegally gifted to her by Henry. Diane was then banished from court. Francis wore the crown for only a little over a year, dying from an infection in December 1560.

The next king was 9 year old Charles IX. While Catherine had shared her power with the Guise family under Francis II, she shared power with no one when it came to Charles. The child adored his mother and took everything she said as the truth. Even when he was declared of age to rule without a regent, he left government matters to his mother. The main trouble at the time were the many civil wars between the Catholics and the French Protestants (aka Huguenots). Catherine tried to adopt a moderate stance, but this just led to neither side really trusting her. The event for which Catherine is most widely well known is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Tensions had been unusually high between the two religious sects, so Catherine arranged the marriage of her Catholic daughter Margot to Henry, the Protestant King of Navarre. As Protestants poured into Paris for the wedding, rumors of an impending attack by said Protestants led Catherine to arrange the assassination of Admiral Coligny, the main figurehead of the Huguenots. When the attempt failed, Catherine and members of Charles’ cabinet decided that a raid needed to be conducted during which all powerful Huguenots would be killed. What was originally supposed to be a controlled execution of a few hundred men lasting two hours snowballed into a week-long slaughter. Death tolls vary widely between 2,000 and 30,000, but whatever the number, this shattered any hope of peace between the two factions.

Two years later, Charles died and Henry III, Catherine’s favorite son, became king. Like Charles, he preferred to leave State business to his mother, though in public he tried to appear independent. One of his….quirks was his intense devotion to his religion which included frequent self-whipping. Many people (both then and now) believe that he was gay (as he kept a group of good looking young men near him at all times, wore perfume, jewelry, heels, and was way too interested in fashion) and that he got sexual pleasure from the whipping…..

There’s a lot more I could write about Catherine regarding her matchmaking, state policies, patronage and the political intrigue she both created and thwarted, but that would take forever, so this is good enough. She was an ugly woman who spent the first half of her life overshadowed by either her aunt or Diane de Poitiers, and the second half ruling a bankrupt France almost singlehandedly. Her moderate stance on religion made her almost universally distrusted, and she couldn’t find a way to get past that issue to make France thrive. She did try, though, and a lot of her policies were ahead of her time. And the mere fact that she was able to keep this broke country from falling into oblivion is a testament to her strength.  Yet, she’s remembered for her interest in the Occult and her role in the Massacre. It’s funny how history works like that. Just like we don’t remember Henry VIII for his policies, no one remembers Catherine de Medici for hers.

Bess of Hardwick

I’ve never been much of a non-fiction person, but recently I’ve gotten very interested in biographies.   I think it’s because I read a lot of historical fiction (it’s pretty much the only thing I read) and sometimes I want to know the real story behind the person in the novel.  You know, how much is true and how much is the author’s invention.  Just as with fiction, however, I’m very picky.  I prefer reading about the wealthy of the past—especially those who weren’t born into it—or the businessmen/women.  Not that the lives of ordinary people can’t be interesting, but it’s the extraordinary people we can really learn something from.  I’ve decided to write a short blog about the people I read about, not only because I find them interesting, but also just to keep a record.

The first person I read about was Bess of Hardwick, aka Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury.  Bess was the richest person in England during her time, and the most powerful behind Queen Elizabeth I.

Bess was born in 1527 in Derbyshire.  Her family was respectable enough, but not wealthy.  In fact, after her father died during her childhood, the family fell on hard times.  Bess was sent to Sir John and Lady Zouche of Codnor Castle when she was 12 to learn how to be a “lady.”  It was there that she met her first husband, Robert Barlow.  They married when he was 14 and she was 15 however, the law stated that the marriage could not be consummated until both spouses reached the age of 16, and sickly Robert died before then.  Though the marriage was never consummated, Bess was entitled to a widow’s pension of 1/3 the revenue of the Barlow estate for the rest of her life.

Bess then went to serve in the household of Henry Grey and Frances Brandon, the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk (parents of Lady Jane Grey, later to be known as the “Nine Day Queen”).  Four years later, at age 20, she became the third wife of Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King’s Chamber.  He was twice her age and had two daughters from previous marriages, but it was believed to be a mutually happy union.  During their 10 year marriage, Bess bore 8 children (6 of whom survived to adulthood) and learned how to run a business and manage property.  She had an astute mind for it and was soon the sole keeper of the books of the Cavendish lands, and made recommendations to her husband about which properties to buy and which to sell.  Sir William died in 1557, leaving Bess their mutual estates, and a widow’s pension from the profitable clothe shop the couple had owned.

Two years later, Bess married her third husband, Sir William St Loe, Captain of the Guard and Chief Butler of England.  He also owned several large properties throughout England.  St Loe was enamoured with Bess, to the point that when he died under suspicious circumstances in 1564 (likely poisoned by his younger brother) he left everything to Bess and her heirs—giving nothing to his daughters and brother.  This would come back to haunt Bess for the rest of her life in the form of legal battles against the other St Loes.

St Loe’s death left Bess one of the most eligible women in England. Not only was she a Lady of the Bedchamber with daily access and the favour of the Queen, but her income was calculated to amount to $20.8 million in present day dollars. In her late 30s, she still retained her looks and good health, and a number of important men began courting her. In 1567 she married her fourth—and last—husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury.  Talbot was one of the wealthiest and most influential nobles in England, and marriage to him raised Bess’s position higher than she ever would have dreamed, as she was, after all, the daughter of a merchant/landowner.

Bess and George’s marriage was a very happy one in the beginning.  Bess continued acquiring properties and renovating her favorites—including the famous Hardwick Hall and her beloved Chatsworth.  She also continued her now-well-known role as a moneylender, property dealer, and exploiter of iron works, coal mines, and glass works.

The happiness ended when the couple were named guardians of Mary, Queen of Scots.  To make a long story short, Queen Elizabeth had no money to keep a royal prisoner, so she passed the cost off onto Shrewsbury, promising to reimburse him, but full of excuses when the time came.  Technically only George was in charge of Mary, so he drained his accounts while Bess kept collecting her three widow’s pensions and the rents from her lands and the fabric shop.  Bess was smart, you see, and got George to sign what was basically a pre-nup guaranteeing that the land she brought to the marriage would remain hers and pass to her heirs when she died.  As if money troubles weren’t enough to ruin a marriage, George fell in love with Mary.  Bess was not a woman to be second-best, so she stopped helping with the cost of the Queen and even sued George when he wouldn’t give her “the sum due a proper wife.”

Mary was removed from George’s care after 15 years, but the divide between the Talbots had run too deep for reconciliation.  George died in 1590, still bitter about his marriage.

Bess spent the rest of her life advancing her family, even risking the wrath of the Queen for the sake of advantageous marriages for her children and grandchildren.  When she died in 1608 at the ripe old age of 80, she left a legacy never forgotten in England.

At first glance, the motto of Bess’s life seems to have been “marry rich,” but that was only part of it.  She became rich in her own right—something very rare for an Elizabethan woman—due to her shrewd business sense and drive to fight for her rights in courts of law which almost always favored men.  She knew that sometimes you had to risk everything to get everything, and as long as you knew what you were doing and didn’t give up, everything would work out.