Woodville witches in “The White Princess”

Like a lot of histfic fans I’ve been enjoying Starz’ “The White Princess”. I’m not sure how historically accurate it is. I’m not sure it matters.

The story plays with one of the gaps in our knowledge that is so ripe for fictionalization: how did Henry VII and his queen Elizabeth of York develop a happy marriage? Sources tell us Henry mourned Elizabeth deeply when she died, but not how a woman could be happy with a man who killed her uncle and deposed her family.  Two episodes in I think the miniseries (based on Philippa Gregory’s novel of the same name) plays with this question admirably.

It also plays with the usual wild rumors: that Richard III intended to marry his niece Elizabeth of York and that one of the Princes in the Tower survived as Perkin Warbeck. But of course the most appealing historical mystery to me is whether Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s widow, practiced witchcraft.

animated gif of a woman in medieval gown spinning a pendulum
Essie Davis witching it up as Elizabeth Woodville in “The White Princess.” Image found by Gramunion via Tumblr.

I don’t have the time to do the subject the research it deserves, so alas, I’m not including any footnotes. It does seem Elizabeth Woodville’s mother Jacquetta was accused of witchcraft twice, both times by political enemies who conveniently had her imprisoned before they charged her. Jacquetta denied her guilt and the accusations dried up when the Woodvilles came back into power anyway.

Even if the Woodvilles did try to lure Edward IV into marrying Elizabeth through supernatural means they may not have had to: she was reputed to be a great beauty and charming to boot.

Essie Davis in costume as Elizabeth Woodville from The White Princess
If the real Elizabeth Woodville looked like Essie Davis it certainly didn’t hurt. Via Tumblr.

Still, if those lead figures were Jaquetta’s she was using them for something, but that may not mean much. People at all levels of society dabbled in witchcraft during the early modern period. For that I do have a footnote: Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic.

Dee, Kelley, and the Gulf Breeze Six

Lest you think that soliciting and obeying dubious supernatural advice is a purely pre-Enlightenment thing, I give you the Gulf Breeze Six.

Google Map of Gulf Breeze, on the Florida panhandle near Pensacola. Beautiful beaches but beware springtime jellyfish.

The abbreviated version: in July 1990 six American soldiers working in intelligence in West Germany went AWOL on the orders an entity called “Safire” they contacted through a Ouija board. The authorities apprehended them in Gulf Breeze, Florida, interrupting their attempt to 1) inform the President about aliens, 2) kill the antichrist, and/or 3) await the Rapture (accounts vary). Incredibly they evaded punishment: after three weeks held incommunicado the military discharged them with full honors.

Of course there’s more to it than that–isn’t there always? Government experiments, UFOs, and prophecies all get tossed into the blender of weird. The blog post at the link provides a sober, comprehensive history. Check out the accompanying PDF for contemporary news clippings.

The story caught my eye because the story is so similar that of Dee and Kelley:

  • Both groups sought and followed supernatural advice, even when it put them in conflict with the authorities
  • Neither group were cults as such, being small (six soldiers plus a handful more; Dee, Kelley, and their wives) disorganized, short-lived, and lacking charismatic leaders
  • Despite wild detours from orthodoxy both groups’ beliefs were rooted solidly in Christian theology

What intrigues me most is how many modern beliefs the Gulf Breeze Six must have had to jettison to make their assumptions. Dee and Kelley obeying their “celestial teachers” makes sense in their historic context; in twentieth century America not so much*. The GB6 must have taken some serious intellectual leaps (IMHO) to obey “Safire”‘s instructions to desert.

Letting go of my modern assumptions has been one of the hardest parts of getting into my characters’ heads. Characters may question Kelley’s intentions or sanity but it wouldn’t occur to them to question the existence of supernatural entities.

Mind, I’m a hard-headed, secular-soaked atheistic sort. Believer’s mileage may vary.

What’s your take?

*I’m well aware that belief in God/gods, angels, demons, etc. persists but those beliefs compete with modern scientific method in a way they didn’t in the sixteenth century. Turns out some of the GB6 were fundamentalist Christians. Which raises the question: how did they come to play with a Ouija board? I thought those were a big no-no in those circles.

Biweekly links 2-8-2017

Here’s what Google Alerts netted for me over the past fortnight:

Queer occult vs. “alt-right” occult: a very different take on the current political turmoil in the U.S. Disclaimer: I am not a practitioner but I find the idea that memes are a kind of magic provocative, to say the least. Thoughts?

Magick as strategy in World War Two: that the Nazis embraced their own twisted form of occultism isn’t news, but the possibility of the English fighting fire with fire in the form of Aleister Crowley is a new one on me. Fantasy, of course, but the facts it’s based on are arguably weirder.

16th-century English Tudor rose pendant unearthed near Moscow Kremlin: before we go all “how did it get there?!” keep in mind that England had a presence in Russia from the time of Ivan the Terrible (a prospective employer of John Dee – but that’s another story). Interestingly I first learned of Englishmen in Ivan’s Russia through Ann Swinfen’s historical fiction as she set one of her Christoval Alvarez books in Muscovy.

Photos: Secret ‘Hole’ to Hide Priests Revealed in Tudor Mansion: Archaeology, hidden passages, and spycraft, my favorites! Researchers used a 3D laser scanner to plot the priest hole’s location in Coughton Court, a “false hole” concealing the real one. Historians believe Nicholas Owens, English Catholic spy and escape artist, created it. Later several of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators used Coughton Court as a hideout.

rectangular alcove in a stone wall
Another priest hole, at Oxborough Hall, UK. By Alasdair Massie on Flickr, some rights reserved.

guest post: the past isn’t even past

A few weeks back I sent out a tweet asking for post suggestions. The best was a request for “the larger context of sixteenth century Prague.” I loved the idea but found it beyond my expertise. Fortunately, I found an extremely qualified guest blogger to address this snarly topic.

Lucy Kemnitzer has been working on a vast interconnected tangle of low-fantasy historical-flavored stories and novels set in a secondary world informed by Central/Eastern Europe but not analogous to it. A few of her early stories can be found at Fictionpress. She became entangled with this region while visiting her first-born who lived in Prague for seven years while studying at Charles University. This came after realizing her family’s heritage was four ways not-quite-Polish and four ways not-quite-German (including the Jewish and Sinto parts).

You can find her two published science fiction novels at Less Than Three Press and a sprinkling of short stories, mostly fantasy.

Lucy’s personal blog on Livejournal

Lucy’s author blog is a bit behind the times for actual reasons but is expected to liven up this year.

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I set out to write about the deep history of ethnicity in the city of Prague, and I will, but let me frame it by talking a bit about some of the public spaces tourists often miss, because these are beautiful places where you can witness both the myth and the history. Also I promised Alison this would relate to Rudolfine Prague, and it will, but not till the end.

In Prague you take the city bus to the forest, you hike past farms and abandoned military installations to get to the mountains–and then you buy beer and sausages to listen to the national opera(1) while perching on a steep hillside peering around the narrow trunks of tenth-growth trees. Along the way are feral fruit trees descended, they say, from the ones planted on decree of a long-ago empress, so that soldiers would have nourishment as they traveled. Like most of the stories I’m going to tell here, this is not quite how it really went(2). This city park is called Divoká Šárka. Šárka was the lieutenant of Vlasta, women who according to legend waged war against the men after the death of Queen Libuše, who with her ploughman husband Přemysl founded Prague where they found a man making a threshold (“prah,” in Czech).

If you count back from historically documented Přemyslid rulers, this legend is clearly impossible. There was no such thing as a Czech at the time any of this could have happened: the undifferentiated Western Slavs didn’t arrive in the region until the seventh century. The first slavic ruler in Bohemia was in the ninth century. By that time there were already several different kinds of people living there.

In order to tell you who was living in the Czech lands before the Czechs, I’m first going to tell you about a modern park in Prague 13. It’s called Centrální park (yes, it is named after New York’s Central Park), and it’s endowed with all the things an extremely large park needs, including lawns, giant chaise longues for sunbathing, bicycle paths, children’s playgrounds, fishing ponds, a beer garden, an archaeological site, and a Celtic tree calendar with a big rock in it(3). This is homage to the Celts who are the first documented inhabitants of Prague. The earliest archaeological finds you can see displayed in replica with some reconstructions and interpretation at the Prague City Museum(4).

These were not just any Celts! In Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, we learn that the Boii (who gave their name to Bohemia), picked up and left to throw in their stakes with the Helvetii who had a grand plan to relocate to Western Gaul and establish a hegemonic regime to rival the Romans. They lost, but while the Helvetii were sent back to their homeland which they unfortunately scorched, the Boii were absorbed into other Celtic tribes in Western Gaul and northern Italy, leaving behind no other record of themselves than a small handful of coins stamped with their name(5).

You’ll notice this leaves Bohemia rather depleted of people. Not for long! It fills up with several tribes of Swabians (Germans) who live quite nicely there. Naturally, Celts and Italians were coming and going through all this time as well. The central location of the Bohemian plateau and its navigable rivers meant that people were coming in from all over during the Roman and post-Roman times.

The Slavs arrived as a band of marauders in the sixth and seventh centuries, just ahead of the Magyars, behind many other waves of marauding tribes who came into Europe and settled in there. It’s kind of hard to characterize the early Slavs because there isn’t a cohesive and distinct archaeological record for them: the reconstructed language history doesn’t seem to match up with what we do know about the cultural history: and early records are scarce and confusing and often refer to places no longer known(6). None of this stopped Alfons Mucha, who you probably know from his Art Nouveau posters of voluptuous underclad women with nasturtiums and calla lilies and also Sarah Bernhardt in drag as Hamlet, from painting his immense Slav Epic (Slovanská epopej), in which he tells a story in 20 immense canvases which is by turns glorious and bitter and almost completely false(7).

The Slavs arrived to find the Germans already brewing the beer and wine for which Bohemia and Moravia respectively became famous. Agricultural methods that (barely) sustained the inhabitants of the plains through which the Vltava River flows were already in place. By the time Bohemia became a player in the Holy Roman Empire the place was still more German than Czech.

The Jews arrived in Prague in the ninth century, took up residence near Prague Castle and Vyšehrad (also a castle). We have a lot of records about Jewish history in Prague(8). Jews have been, in  Prague as elsewhere, far more important than mere numbers would indicate, for their contribution to culture, technology, and politics.

The beloved Charles IV (the Holy Roman Emperor whose 700th birthday is being celebrated this year), though descended from the Czech Přemyslids on his mother’s side, was Luxembourgian on his father’s side and given a French education and Italian war experience before becoming King of Bohemia and a lot of other places.By the time he was building CHarles University and the Hunger Wall and generally advancing his subjects, he felt it important to learn Czech along with the usual Latin, French, German, and Italian. As in the rest of the Holy Roman Empire, in Prague there was a cosmopolitan community filled with polyglots.

So a couple of centuries later when Rudolf II comes along, he’s ruling–among other things, remember he’s a Holy Roman Emperor(9) a Prague with a fully diverse population. This fully diverse population is actively restructuring itself (as it is in the rest of Europe), in at least three different dimensions: class, religion, and nationality. Rudolf’s Prague was a turmoil of landed aristocracy versus bourgeoisie versus the guilds, Protestant versus Catholic, Czech versus German versus Italian (still lots of Italians in those days, and Rudolf imported some new ones for their craftsmanship) and all versus Jews. Rudolf found some of this to be useful. He wasn’t a Protestant himself, but he didn’t consistently persecute them because they could be a wielded in struggles with the Pope.  Likewise with class and nationality: Rudolf found allies and enemies in every corner, and he was happy to trade one for another if it would advance his projects.

There is one book I recommend to everyone who would like to understand these aspects of Prague’s history better: Prague in Black and Gold, by Peter Demetz (You can currently get a copy from Powell’s). Peter Demetz’s perspective on the rich tapestry of life and the complicated forces of history is refreshing and enlightening.

_________

(1)On the first Saturday of September. (here’s a description of the most recent one)

(2)According to Structure and management of the urban forest in Prague Maria Theresa decreed that trees in general should be planted along all the roads to aid in orientation in bad weather, provide firewood, and improve the landscape. The fact remains that roads in Prague and elsewhere in the region do tend to have a lot of feral fruit trees on them.

(3)Here’s a picture of it taken by some Ingress player. I know, that’s odd, but the only descriptive links I can find are in Czech.

(4)Off-topic: this year would be a good time to hit up all the many historical museums in Prague because it’s the 700th anniversary of the birth of Charles IV, who was as good a king as a king can be, and I am not being sarcastic here.

(5)There has to be a better translation of this book than I can find online. Cicero thought Caesar was an excellent literary stylist. I remember it read quite nicely in second-year Latin. But this translation is all kludge and sludge and it’s all I can find right now.

(6)Seriously, read this Wikipedia article for a look at how baffling early Slavic history is.

(7)Here’s a kind of blurry panorama [YouTube] a visitor made of the exhibit at the National Gallery, which is worth visiting not just for the amazing and beautiful monster of propaganda which is the Slav Epic, but also for the other exhibitions, which cover a lot of territory, artistically and historically, in a pleasant building which was once a department store. It’s across the river from Staré Město (Old Town), and while you are over there you can check out the Agricultural Museum, the Technical Museum, and the Modern Art Museum, if you have strong enough feet. Also there is another huge park, the Letenské sady (Letna Park) nearby, which has great views of the Vltava River and Staré Město, and in spring is redolent of lilacs that grow on big! Old! Trees!

(8)For more Jewish history in Prague you could start at the The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe or the Jewish Virtual Library. Also, the Golem is a Prague story, so if you look up Golem stories you’ll get some Prague local color. Be aware that all of the surviving synagogues in the Jewish Quarter of Prague are also museums (as well as being working synagogues, so time your visits appropriately).

(9)Another cool thing about Charles IV is that he set up a method for succession that didn’t depend on the personalities of his children. Consequently the Holy Roman Empire that Rudolf inherited was almost the same size and shape as the one Charles IV left behind.

biweekly links 12-14-2016

Queen Elizabeth I’s Vast Spy Network Was The First Surveillance State: repeats old myths about John Dee as the inspiration for 007 but the rest of the article is rock solid factual. I used Alford’s “The Watchers” as background for the “Dee/Kelley as spies” angle and discovered enough about intelligencer Charles Sledd to make him a well-rounded antagonist for my book.

Oil painting of dour Elizabethan man in dark clothes and stiffly starched ruff
Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, attributed to John de Critz the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Pretty glum, no? He was probably only happy when fighting Spain and the Catholic Church.
Through foreign eyes: the forgotten ambassadors to the Tudor court: English espionage got organized under Liz but there was plenty of spy vs. spy at her dad’s court too. Diplomats spied on the king, courtiers, and each other, with varying degrees of success.

In the 16th Century, People Went Crazy for Portraits Made Up of Fruits and Veggies – delightful thumbnail sketch of Rudolf II fave Giuseppe Archimboldo and a nice selection of his proto-surrealist portraiture.

Why the Stone Age could be when Brits first brewed beer: hops only came in during the late medieval period but fermenting was going on long before that. Heather ale? Why not – evidently it has a long tradition in Scotland. Article links extensively to archaeologists’ CVs and publications, and even a few historically-inspired brews. Don’t you just love food archaeology?

biweekly links 11-30-2016

Busy week, so here’s a selection from the past two weeks of my Google Alerts:

Second Salem: The Real-Life Prosecution & Paranoia That Inspired J. K. Rowling’s ‘Fantastic Beasts’: the latest edition to the Harry Potter ‘verse is built around an alternate history in which the 17th century Salem witch trials left a long shadow tainting American muggle/”no maj” and wizard relations well into the 1920s. Opinions?

The Magick of Dion Fortune – With Paul Clark (re-broadcast): Fortune is another new-to-me name from the early years of the Golden Dawn, and writer of occult fiction. This seems to be fairly standard fare from the also new-to-me Hermetic Hour podcast.

Arrival – reviewed by a UFO expert: the expert in question is Nick Pope, former head of the UFO desk (yes, there was [is?] such a thing) in the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Some interesting observations about how the plot of the movie intersects with government (lack of) contingency plans for alien contact and the portrayal of the military. I saw this a few weeks ago and it’s a slow mover but riveting. The aliens are truly alien and the story stays with you long after the credits roll.

biweekly links 11-16-2016

Doctor Strange tapped into a fascination with the mystical that was front and center in America when he was created in the 60s – now he casts his spell again: puts the new Marvel universe movie in the context of the character’s origins in controversial 1960s spiritual explorations. I enjoyed it, wish they showed more of the Sanctum Sanctorum (now on Google Maps!). The mentino of the Key of Solomon amused.

Captain America's quote from The Avengers:
Via knowyourmeme.com

Have you seen it? What did you think?

Speaking of books: The Evolution of Clocks and Timekeeping Rare Books from the 15th century to the present at the Grolier Club: including tomes on timekeeping, mechanical clocks, sundials and astronomical tools by Tycho Brahe, Athanasius Kircher, Girolamo Cardano and more.

Renaissance painter Botticelli’s dark side revealed in new film – but did he have one?: known for the delicate beauty of “Birth of Venus” and “Primavera”, it’s often forgotten that Botticelli illustrated “Dante’s Inferno” as well. This new documentary explores the Florentine master’s “dark side” whilst arguing that he didn’t have one.  I’d say burning your paintings at the behest of a religious fanatic is pretty dark, or at least depressing.

the problem (and opportunity) of Joanna Kelley

You’d think that by this point in the book I’d have a stronger grip on all my characters.

On good days it’s almost like channeling. Edward Kelley’s con-artistry, Jane Dee’s frustration, and John Dee’s obsession all spring easily to mind at this point but Joanna Kelley eludes me.

Which is nonsensical because of all these historical figures I probably know the least about her and so have the most leave to make things up.

Dee didn’t have a strong opinion about her; Edward Kelley “loves her not, nay, I abhor her”; Jane Dee apparently took her side in arguments with Kelley. Charlotte Fell-Smith’s 1909 biography of Dee describes Joanna as “lively and docile” but Fell-Smith tended to speculate.

It’s not clear why Kelley married her – the “angels” ordered him to marry but didn’t specify a bride. Wooley suggests someone (who?) might have paid him marry her in order to legitimize children she had with an aristocratic lover; Bassnett argues she was the widow of a clerk named John Weston. It doesn’t seem she brought any status or money into the marriage. Only two things are clear: she was only 19 when she married Kelley and he didn’t like her.

Why would she marry someone like Kelley, a volatile man with few (legal) prospects who didn’t want to get married in the first place?

I’ve mixed bits and pieces from the scholarship for Joanna’s backstory, but even if I know how she got into the Dee/Kelley household I’m still not clear on how she manages once she’s there. Optimism and resilience would help her endure Kelley’s tempers. Smarts and adaptability wouldn’t hurt, given dangerous travel and domestic strife.

The idea of “Firefly”‘s cheerful engineer Kaylee Frye sprung to mind. A fictional sci-fi character may be an odd inspiration for an Elizabethan housewife but I can imagine that someone of Kaylee’s uncultured enthusiasm would charm everyone around her but get on grumpy Kelley’s last nerve.

Beaming girl in fluffy, ruffled dress.
I imagine Joanna being just this sweet and gauche when she comes to Mortlake for the first time. Less floofy dress though. The only linkable version of this pic I could find.

My hardest plot challenge of all is why does Kelley hate her so? No one else seems to. I’m considering several possibilities (no spoilers) but even at this late stage I’ve not got this crucial factor ironed out yet.

Maybe it’s difficult for me because while I know fear, anger, and obsession, I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine.

Fortunately I’ve completed the day job certification that ate most of my time for the past couple of months and am eager to get back to editing. Hopefully I’ll get into the zone and she’ll evolve organically out of rewrites.

References:

Bassnett, Susan. 2006. “Absent Presences: Edward Kelley’s Family in the Writings of John Dee.” In John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought, 285–94. Dordrecht: Springer.

Wooley, Benjamin. 2001. The Queen’s Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Henry Holt and Co.

biweekly links 11-2-2016

Happy (belated) Halloween/Samhain/All Hallows/etc! I can’t top the biggest early modern European news of the last 2 weeks (Christopher Marlowe Officially Credited As Co-Author Of 3 Shakespeare Plays) but I’ll try:

Woodcut of
A sea-bishop from Johann Zahn’s 1696 work Specula physico-mathematico-historica notabilium ac mirabilium sciendorum (that’s a mouthful). By Sean Linehan, NOS, NGS National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/library/libr0081.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

last to the party

I’m not the best at keeping up with trends. Maybe it’s age, maybe I’m just perpetually up to my ears in my own peculiar interests, but I don’t always know what’s happening in pop culture at large, even in my own bailiwick.

Take “Hamilton”. I first became vaguely aware of the play only because a fellow writer mentioned it on Facebook. At the time I chalked up her enthusiasm to her subject matter (historical fiction set in 18th century America), but it didn’t take long before half the people I knew were swooning over the soundtrack. Had I heard it? Wasn’t it awesome?

And I hadn’t. A musical about a founding father sounded like an interesting trick to me but then, I’m a history nerd. Alas, I’m a lazy/distracted history nerd and didn’t go much beyond Googling the play. Rationalizing that I couldn’t get much out of a soundtrack to something I’d never seen (and wasn’t likely ever to be able to!) I wandered off into other things.

Then a friend played the opening “Alexander Hamilton” track for me. Hip hop and history – I like it! I mused aloud that putting historical fact to modern music would make it relatable and memorable.

It wasn’t until this past summer that my husband caught the bug, and at his urging I finally downloaded the soundtrack for the Jamestown roadtrip.

Um, damn.

Every single track an earworm, memorable even on first hearing! Funny too – I didn’t know this was a comedy. Wait, it’s not – oh poor Eliza! Is this one about the Federalist Papers? Did this guy seriously just make dry political legalese cool?

I think I get it, finally. I’m not a “foaming-at-the-mouth-best-thing-since-sliced-bread” fan but I’m all in favor of translating history to appeal to modern audiences and “Hamilton” does this flawlessly. The new PBS making-of special is excellent, including not just performances but Miranda’s writing process: how he decided what to keep, cut, fictionalize, and compress from the historical record to tell a good story. Even the actors researched their characters, to the point of going to historic sites and collections [envy!]

So, I reckon I got there in the end. Anyone have something new to recommend?