Monday, 22 November 2010

A Saint, Three Queens and an Author - Part II

The next influential women in chronological order happen to all be queens:  Isabella of Spain, Elizabeth I of England and Catherine the Great, of Russia.  I don't know how you feel about these posts, but I'm feeding my own curiosity, reading things I probably wouldn't unless I set myself the task of telling you about these women.  It will also tell me what biographies I might want to track down at some point.  I love putting the jigsaw of European history together with the different sources I encounter over time.

Queen Isabella (ranked 21 of 100).
1.  She lived from 1451 to 1504.  

2.  Her much older half-brother kept changing his mind about whom she should marry.  She finally took the reins in her own hands and eloped with Ferdinand, the man her mother had originally given her hand.  They had to get Papal concession because their grandfathers were brothers, but that eventually was granted so the half-brother didn't manage to get the marriage annulled.

3.  With the union of Isabella (of Castile and Leon) and Ferdinand (of Aragon) came the unification of Spain (such as it is).  Unfortunately, in their desire to make Spain a single country with a single religion, Ferdinand was convinced to initiate the Spanish Inquisition (yeah, that one) to help rid the country of Jews and Muslims.

4.  I only ever equated the name Isabella with Christopher Columbus, and it is likely this is how she was most influential (in a positive way).  It was her willingness to sponsor exploration of the world along with the country's unification that allowed Spain to build an empire.

5.  Interestingly, Portugal wasn't happy with the claims Spain made in South America, claiming that territory for itself.  So, the two countries sat down and divided the world between them with the Treaty of Tordesillas.  This rang a bell with me, as it is a salient point in the plot of James Clavell's excellent novel, Shogun.

6. I was fascinated to learn that Isabella's youngest daughter was none other than Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry the VIII, the Queen he had to start a new church to divorce.  That's what I mean about puzzle pieces.

Our next Queen I know well:  Elizabeth I, ranked 16th.  She's one of my favourite historical figures and I'll read a book or watch a movie about her any day.  In fact, she's probably to blame for my coming to England.  I watched Young Bess at the impressionable age of 13.

1.  The second daughter of Henry VIII, she lived from 1533 to 1603.  

2. Her father had moved heaven and earth to rid himself of his first wife (see above) in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother.  If ever a girl child needed to be a boy, Elizabeth did.  When she was 2 and a half, her mother was beheaded.  This was supposedly for adultery, incest and treason, but really because she didn't produce a male heir.  (The irony of it all, now that we know a child's gender is determined by the father).  With a half-sister, half-brother and a cousin inserted into the succession ahead of her, that Elizabeth lived to claim the throne is part miracle and part wily caution on her part.

3.  Elizabeth was the best educated young woman of her time.  She ruled with more moderate policies than her siblings or father.  

4.  She never married, perhaps because she feared losing power as reigning queen, possibly because she loved an unsuitable man, Robert Dudley, or maybe because it was a convenient political carrot for the first part of her reign.  Over time, part of her fame was for being a Virgin Queen.

5.  As head of England's Protestant Church, Elizabeth feared the Catholic interests of France and Mary Queen of Scots, her cousin.  She eventually imprisoned Mary and had her beheaded as a means of protecting her own throne.  In spite of this, and perhaps because Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, was raised a Protestant, she made him her heir; he was then also James I of England.

6.  Though cautious in foreign affairs and never a patron of the arts, the longevity of her reign after the numerous successions alternating between Catholic and Protestant rulers provided a peace that the English appreciated.  The Elizabethan era is remembered for the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the adventures of Francis Drake, and the writings of Shakespeare and Marlowe.  She is also, unfortunately to blame for the plantations of Protestants in Ireland, the beginnings of the massive problems there.

Finally, we come to Catherine the Great, ranked 46th.  My Mom always expressed admiration for this woman, and I've never known much about her before.  After writing this piece, I wonder what mushy movie my Mom watched.  Catherine sounds pretty scary to me!  Maybe it was that toughness that Mom admired?  

1.  She was actually of German and Danish descent, born in Prussia, originally named Sophie, and lived between 1729 and 1796.  She married the heir to the Russian throne, Peter the III (whereupon her name changed to Catherine).

2.  It's all rather complicated, but apparently her husband wasn't that keen on being Tsar of Russia; he was fascinated by Frederick II of Prussia and his soldiers were rather insulted by this, particularly as they had been at war with Prussia for the seven years prior to Peter III's rein.  Catherine, on the other hand, did everything she could to be more Russian including changing from the German Lutheran religion to become Eastern Orthodox, learning the language and keeping up with current affairs, which of course made her more popular. 

3.  Only six months into his rein, Peter was lolling around in Oranienbaum (now on my list to see in St Petersburg!) with his mistress and his Prussian buddies, leaving Catherine in St Petersburg (she apparently had a few lovers of her own, mind).  The military unit assigned as his personal guards revolted in a 'bloodless coup'; bloodless until 3 days later when one of the soldiers killed him.  There is no evidence that Catherine was involved in his murder; there were others who would have benefitted from his death.

4.  So, though not descended from any previous Russian emporer, she boldly stepped in and became Empress.   Why she is called 'Great', well, for one, she had the longest reign of all the Emporers of Russia since Peter the Great (Tsar from 1682 to 1725), lasting 34 years.

5.  During her reign she added about 200,000 square miles to Russia's map, mainly from the Turks (Ottoman Empire) and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (who knew there was such a thing?).  She won territory that gave access to the Black Sea, a project only begun by Peter the Great, and made her country the dominant force in Southeastern Europe.  At same time as taking on the Ottoman Empire, Russia successfully defended herself against a take-over bid by Sweden, who assumed she'd be distracted by the Turks.  Catherine made Poland a vassal state, set up trade with Japan and gave Russia the role of mediator between other states potentially headed for war.  She was a patron of the arts, improved Russia's adminstration, worked to modernize her along Western European lines and became a recognized power in Europe.
6.  It has to be said, however, that whilst she may have been Great for Russia, she wasn't so hot for the majority of Russians, ie the peasants.  Though she wanted to be known as an 'enlightened sovereign', serfs suffered under Catherine, not least because they were conscripted to fight her wars.  In spite of her friendship with French philosphers such as Diderot and Voltaire, it was the Russian nobility who most benefitted whilst she was Emporess.

1 comment:

Rick Stone said...

Blogs are pretty much done for two reasons. 1) to get ones thoughts down and a particular subject and 2) to put those thoughts out there for others to read. So, a blog appears to be a personal thing for the author to decide what should be written. I write these mostly to keep some family and friends up to date on our travels but also to make a record of those travels. I've got them all stored on flash drives and have been printing them out and putting them in a very large notebook. In our old age we can look back and relive these trips. It is obvious folks enjoy your musings or you would not have as many followers as you do.