Coco Chanel: Nazi Collaborator & Spy

Everyone knows of Coco Chanel as a fashion icon and style pioneer. She is justly respected for her vision, brilliance, and the way she changed the world of fashion. Yet, hardly anyone talks about the other side of the mirror, the Chanel who was the epitome of a cold opportunist, and an amoral, ethically challenged survivor who would claw her way to the top. If that meant — quite literally — sleeping with the enemy, then so be it. Even if that enemy was a Nazi. In fact, not only did Coco Chanel have a high-ranking Nazi lover before and after WWII, she was allegedly also a Nazi spy herself, code-named “Westminster.”

Source: lipstiq.com

Source: lipstiq.com

The whitewashing of history is a sore subject for me, and the case of Coco Chanel, in particular, has bothered me for a long time. Then, a few weeks ago over the recent Christmas holidays, I watched a French film about Chanel’s alleged affair with the famed composer, Igor Stravinsky, in 1920. “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is a gorgeous but problematic account for a few reasons, not the least of which is whether or not there was an actual affair. (Coco Chanel insisted it occurred, Stravinsky’s main lover and second wife insisted that it did not.) Regardless, the story reminded me of the Chanel that so few talk about, the real Gabrielle Chanel, and it brought back all my old feelings.

I won’t get into the details of Chanel’s extremely difficult childhood, or the well-worn territory of her rise to power through the assistance of various lovers. Both periods of time have been amply discussed. I concede here and now, explicitly, that childhood traumas can shape us, determine our character, and are important in discussing a person’s motivations as an adult. Again, I repeat, I concede that point fully.

However, I firmly believe that there are lines, lines which cannot be excused by one’s opportunistic hungers or by an ingrained desire to survive. For me, Gabrielle Chanel crossed those lines, badly, and the cultish worship of Chanel as a fashion icon, woman and person needs to stop. There needs to be a more balanced, considered, and critical approach that takes into consideration the two faces of Gabrielle Chanel, a woman who I think resembles Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

"Sleeping with the Enemy," 2011 book cover. Source: Stylemagazin.hu

“Sleeping with the Enemy,” 2011 book cover. Source: Stylemagazin.hu

The primary focus for the following discussion will be a book called Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War by Hal Vaughn. Mr. Vaughn (who passed away three months ago) was a former diplomat who was also involved with the CIA before he became a journalist. His book was released in 2011, relies heavily on recently declassified French and German documents, and garnered many rave reviews.

The issue of Coco Chanel’s anti-Semitism and war-time collaboration with the Nazis is widely known, though rarely discussed, but the book went much further than that. Based on those newly released documents, Vaughn revealed that Chanel was a Nazi spy. Yes, an actual spy. With a code-name referencing her British lover, the Duke of Westminster, who was another notorious anti-Semite.

PRE-WAR CHANEL:

New York Times‘ book review on Sleeping with the Enemy provides a succinct chronological background to Chanel’s actions at the end of the 1920s, actions that lay the groundwork for some of the events that were to come to pass:

As her personal fortunes rose [in the late 1920s], she turned her attention to making serious inroads into British high society, befriending Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales and becoming, most notably, the mistress of the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (known as Bendor), reputedly the wealthiest man in England.

Chanel and the Duke of Westminister. Source: The New York Times.

Chanel and the Duke of Westminster. Source: The New York Times.

Bendor’s — and Chanel’s — anti-­Semitism was vociferous and well documented; the pro-Nazi sensibilities of the Duke of Windsor and many in his circle have long been noted, too. All this, it appears, made the society of the British upper crust particularly appealing to Chanel. As Vaughan notes, after she was lured by a million-dollar fee to spend a few weeks in Hollywood in 1930 — Samuel Goldwyn, he writes, “did his best to keep Jews away from Chanel” — she found herself compelled to run straight back to England, so that she could wash away her brush with vulgarity in “a bath of nobility.” [Emphasis to names added by me.]

Chanel with WInston Churchill (far right) and his son. Source: betterthannylund.blogspot.com/

Chanel with Winston Churchill (far right) and his son. Source: betterthannylund.blogspot.com/

Coco Chanel wasn’t turned into an anti-Semite by her ducal lover. Many sources, including Vaughn, argue that her bigotry had deep roots, going back to her childhood at a convent where such views seemed commonplace amongst the nuns and villagers. What was more significant about the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England and her lover for 6 years, was that he introduced Chanel to Winston Churchill. They became life-long friends, and it was a friendship that would serve her well when the time came down the road. In the meantime, she was living it up in Paris and was one of the wealthiest women in the world, thanks, in part, to the runaway success of Chanel No. 5.

Pierre Wertheimer. Source: newyorksocialdiary.com

Pierre Wertheimer. Source: newyorksocialdiary.com

A little known fact is that Coco Chanel had Jewish partners, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, whose descendents now control the entire Chanel empire. (As a result, the modern-day Wertheimer brothers are billionaires, with a combined net worth of over $19 billion dollars.) Chanel may have been an anti-Semite, but she was an opportunist first and foremost — and she badly needed the Wertheimer brothers in order to make her perfumes a success. I’ll rely on Pierre’s Wikipedia entry for the basic background details, though I’m fully aware that Wikipedia often has serious flaws and should only be used as a starting point in things. Still, the brothers aren’t the focus of this piece, and the Wikipedia account is supported by a site called Funding Universe. So, back to the Wertheimers. In the early 1920s, the two brothers were very wealthy, thanks to their father who founded the French makeup company, Bourjois. (It is still the cheaper arm for Chanel cosmetics to this day.)

In 1924, Chanel sought their financial backing in order to launch her perfume line and, most specifically, Chanel No. 5. In essence, the Wertheimers acted as venture capitalists in a new corporate entity called “Parfums Chanel,” in return for a whopping percentage of the rights and profits. As the Wikipedia entry explains:

In 1924, Coco Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimers creating a corporate entity, “Parfums Chanel.”

Chanel believed that the time was opportune to extend the sale of her fragrance Chanel No. 5. to a wider customer base. Since its introduction it had been available only as an exclusive offering to an elite clientele in her boutique. Cognizant of the Wertheimer’s proven expertise in commerce, their familiarity with the American marketplace, and resources of capital, Chanel felt a business alliance with them would be fortuitous. Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris department store, Galeries Lafayette, had been instrumental in brokering the business connection by introducing Pierre Wertheimer to Chanel at the Longchamps races in 1922. […] 

Source: http://reneeashleybaker.wordpress.com

Source: reneeashleybaker.wordpress.com

For a seventy percent share of the company, the Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. Théophile Bader was given a twenty percent share. For ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to “Parfums Chanel” and removed herself from involvement in all business operations.[4] Ultimately displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of “Parfums Chanel.” In 1935, Chanel instigated a lawsuit against the Wertheimers, which proved unsuccessful.[5]

Then, war came, and oh, what an opportunity it was for Mademoiselle Chanel. Up to that time, she had been living the high-life in a luxurious apartment at the Paris Ritz Hotel. While that part of her life didn’t change when the Nazis goose-stepped their way up the Champs-Elysees, they brought with them the convenient benefit of Aryanization laws that would target Jewish-owned business.

THE NAZIS & CHANEL:

"Chanel, age 56, photographed by George Hoyningen-Heune, 1939 (copyright Horst/ Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery)." Source: Newyorksocialdiary.com

“Chanel, age 56, photographed by George Hoyningen-Heune, 1939 (copyright Horst/ Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery).” Source: Newyorksocialdiary.com

To quote a New Republic book review called “The Stench of Perfume“:

While her fellow countrymen starved and died, she lived like a queen in the Ritz, surrounded by Nazi officers and enjoying Nazi parties. Berlin ordered that the Ritz was “reserved exclusively for the temporary accommodation of high-ranking personalities,” meaning that Chanel must have made connections with some very powerful Nazis in order to stay there. And there is the matter of her anti-Semitism.

In addition to her collaborations, Chanel spoke loudly and vehemently against Jews, and even tried to take advantage of the Nazi seizure of Jewish businesses and property. Her world-famous perfume, Chanel No. 5, was owned and produced by the Wertheimers—a rich Franco-Jewish family. Chanel had always been paranoid that the Wertheimers were stealing from her (though her lawyer assured her of the contrary), and during the war, when the family had fled to America, she attempted to take full control of Chanel No. 5. But the Wertheimers had anticipated that the Nazis (or Chanel) might try to steal their company, and therefore they signed it over to a Frenchman for the duration of the war. Chanel couldn’t touch it. The Wertheimers also sent a spy, Herbert Gregory Thomas (under the pseudonym, Don Armando Guevaray Sotto Mayor), to retrieve the chemical formula to make Chanel No. 5 as well as collect all the necessary ingredients. He then brought everything back with him to America, so that the Wertheimers could continue to produce and sell the fragrance.

Chanel may have been thwarted in her attempts to use Nazi Aryanization laws to obtain control of the perfume company that bore her name, but the Nazis still made her rich. Very, very rich. The blog, MessyNessyChic, explains:

Source: MessyNessyChic.com

Source: MessyNessyChic.com

On May 5, 1941, Coco Chanel wrote to the government department in charge of the handling of Jewish financial assets.

These are her words in the letter:

Parfums Chanel is still the property of Jews … and has been legally ‘abandoned’ by the owners. I have an indisputable right of priority. The profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business…are disproportionate.

Ultimately, Chanel was awarded the wartime profits from the sale of her perfume, including share of two percent of sales which amounted to the equivalent of $25 million a year in modern currency.  This made her the richest woman in the world at that time– thanks to the Nazis.

"The young Baron von Dinklage circa 1935 at the German Embassy in Paris when he was working for the Gestapo, already a close friend of Chanel." Source: NY Social Diary.http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907697/print

“The young Baron von Dinklage circa 1935 at the German Embassy in Paris when he was working for the Gestapo, already a close friend of Chanel.” Source: NY Social Diary. http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907697/print

Chanel was equally successful in satisfying her voracious sexual appetites. There’s nothing wrong with that, but my disdain stems from her choice of lovers: Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a senior officer for the Abwehr or German Military Intelligence, who reported directly to Goebbels. Dincklage, who was much younger than Chanel, ended up being the last great love of her life.

Chanel didn’t stop at merely taking on a high-ranking Nazi lover. She became an actual Abwehr spy, with her own number: Abwehr Agent 7124. Her code name was “Westminster,” harkening back to her anti-Semitic ducal lover in England. The basis for Vaughn’s argument: those newly declassified documents from French and German authorities, as well as Nazi documents taken by the Soviets back to Russia and similarly released by that government in recent years.

General Walter Schellenberd, nicknamed "Hitler's Spymaster"

General Walter Schellenberg, nicknamed “Hitler’s Spymaster.” Source: Wikipedia.

Chanel and her Nazi lover sought to recruit wealthy Europeans to the Nazi cause, and Chanel had two actual missions. To be fair, some of Chanel’s wartime efforts were an attempt to secure the release of those she cared about. One mission to Madrid was done partially to secure her nephew’s release from a German POW camp. Some people try to justify her meeting in Berlin with the SS‘s intelligence chief, General Walter Schellenberg, and Himmler‘s right-hand man in the same way. (Yes, she met with Nazis who were that powerful!)

The reason for that meeting was “Modellhut” (or “model hat”). That was the codename for her second mission for the Nazis, which took place in 1943, and sought to counter the turning tide of the war by using Chanel’s friendship with Winston Churchill to achieve a peace with terms that wouldn’t hurt Germany. As a Washington Post book review of “Sleeping with the Enemy” puts it:

When Germany began to falter, the Nazis came to believe that Chanel might be useful in contacting her old friends Churchill and the Duke of Westminster and brokering a possible peace. She didn’t disappoint. She did what she was told to do and, in 1944, she wrote Churchill a letter, referring obliquely to her German connections.

[It didn’t work, but] Chanel continued to live at the Ritz, rub shoulders with Nazis and dine on poularde rotie, even as French families dug through the city’s garbage, trying to fend off starvation. […] 

Parisians foraging for food, via NewYorkSocialDiary.com

Parisians foraging for food, via NewYorkSocialDiary.com. http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907697/print

As the war ground on and Dincklage came and went from Berlin, convincing his bosses that she was trustworthy, thousands of French Jews were herded to sure deaths in Poland and Eastern Europe. But the glamorous woman with the deft needle and acid tongue was safe. The good life at the Ritz continued to roll on. There were legions of women of courage and derring-do throughout Europe, working hard to outwit the Nazis. Chanel was not among them.

THE LIBERATION OF PARIS & CHANEL:

In the final days of August 1944, after Paris was liberated, retribution for the “collabos” or those who collaborated with the Germans was harsh. Some say about 30,000 to 40,000 people were executed. “Horizontal collaborators” or women who merely slept with the Germans suffered as well, though it was primarily humiliation and ostracism. The punishment was swift and brutal, even though none of them were actual Nazi spies who went to Berlin to meet with Hitler’s spy chief. An excerpt of “Sleeping with the Enemy” in the New York Times gives you a small idea of what happened:

A thirst for revenge gripped the nation in the last days of August. Four years of shame, pent-up fear, hate, and frustration erupted. Revengeful citizens roamed the streets of French cities and towns. The guilty — and many innocents — were punished as private scores were settled. Many alleged collaborators were beaten; some murdered. “Horizontal collaborators” — women and girls who were known to have slept with Germans — were dragged through the streets. A few would have the swastika branded into their flesh; many would have their heads shaved. Civilian collabos — even some physicians who had treated the Boche — were shot on sight. The lucky were jailed, to be tried later for treason.

Female collaborators in Paris, rounded up and marked with swastikas. Source: histomil.com

Female collaborators in Paris, rounded up and marked with swastikas. Source: histomil.com

What did Coco Chanel do? She hurriedly ran out into the streets to give bottles of Chanel No. 5 to American GIs! (You have to almost admire her nerve.) A few days later she was arrested, but Winston Churchill made a phone call, and she was soon released.

Chanel got off scot-free, and for reasons that went much further than Winston Churchill’s intervention. With the help of influential friends, including her ex-lover the Duke of Westminster, she successfully orchestrated a cover-up. She lied about pretty much everything and to everyone. She even went so far as get a former collaborative ally arrested by the French Partisans and, later, to bribe the ailing Nazi spymaster to keep her secret. To quote the New York Times review that I referenced at the start:

She tipped off the poet and anti-Nazi partisan Pierre Reverdy, a longtime occasional lover, so that he could arrange the arrest of her wartime partner in collaboration, Baron Louis de Vaufreland Piscatory; she paid off the family of the former Nazi chief of SS intelligence Gen. Walter Schellenberg when she heard that he was preparing to publish his memoirs. (It was Schellenberg who had given her the “model hat” assignment.)

Chanel and Dinklage. in 1951 at Villars sur Ollon, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland. Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com via Paris Match & Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library

Chanel and Dincklage. in 1951 at Villars sur Ollon, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland. Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com via Paris Match &
Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library

God only knows what the partisans did to a French traitor like the Baron, but it can’t have been anything good. In the meantime, mere days after her questioning and release, Chanel fled to Switzerland. There she remained for 8 years, until 1954, with her Nazi lover, living in style and in the height of luxury. Oh, and taking drugs while she was at it as well. Chanel was a hard-core morphine addict, relying on it daily until she was well into her 70s.

Throughout it all and until her death, she was coldly unapologetic for her actions, which is one of the things that bothers me the most. She may have done some things to survive, but I think she went too far, and, worst of all, she never once felt any regret.

Instead, when asked in later years about her Nazi ties, she coolly responded, “I don’t ask my lovers for their passports.” As for the French, a Portugese site, Fashionatto, quotes her as saying, “The French got what they deserved” and “Not all Germans were bad guys.” No, not all Germans were bad, and yes, the French behavior during the Vichy Government was abominable, but Chanel’s callous dismissal of the details goes a step too far. One of the things that irritates me to no end is her sheer indifference to anything other than herself. There is narcissism, and then there is megalomaniacal narcissism — I’m trying to decide there should be an entirely separate category reserved solely for Gabrielle Chanel.

As even The New York Times puts it,

Gabrielle Chanel — better known as Coco — was a wretched human being. Anti-Semitic, homophobic, social climbing, opportunistic, ridiculously snobbish and given to sins of phrase-making like “If blonde, use blue perfume,” she was addicted to morphine and actively collaborated with the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Paris. And yet, her clean, modern, kinetic designs, which brought a high-society look to low-regarded fabrics, revolutionized women’s fashion, and to this day have kept her name synonymous with the most glorious notions of French taste and élan.

CHANEL’S POST-WAR COMEBACK & THE WERTHEIMERS:

Chanel and Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Source: styleamor.com

Chanel and Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus. Source: styleamor.com

One of the strangest parts of this whole sorry tale is the behavior of the Wertheimer Brothers after the war. They paid for Chanel to live in the lap of luxury, from her exile in Switzerland until her death in Paris in 1971 at the age of 87. Their generosity boggles my mind. I can understand why they would finance her reestablishment in French society and the re-emergence of Chanel as a business success; that benefits them indirectly and financially. It was a business decision about a corporate entity. But her personal bills? All of them, and until her death? Despite her collaboration and despite how she had treated them personally? That takes the milk of human kindness to levels that I simply cannot fathom. (Yes, I am a much less forgiving person.) Meanwhile, Chanel grabbed the money, and then declared that Pierre Wertheimer was “the bandit who screwed me.”

There seems to be the suggestion that Pierre Wertheimer was a long-time admirer of Chanel, and perhaps had a crush on her, but that didn’t prevent the two of them from having a little perfume war while Coco was in exile. There is a site called Funding Universe which has a detailed history of Chanel and her company, and which talks about the conflict over “Parfums Chanel“:

[After the war ended,] Pierre Wertheimer returned to Paris to resume control of his family’s holdings. Despite her absence, Coco Chanel continued her assault on her former admirer and began manufacturing her own line of perfumes. Feeling that Coco Chanel was infringing on Parfums Chanel’s business, Pierre Wertheimer wanted to protect his legal rights, but wished to avoid a court battle, and so, in 1947, he settled the dispute with Coco Chanel, giving her $400,000 and agreeing to pay her a 2 percent royalty on all Chanel products. He also gave her limited rights to sell her own perfumes from Switzerland.

Coco Chanel never made any more perfume after the agreement. She gave up the rights to her name in exchange for a monthly stipend from the Wertheimers. The settlement paid all of her monthly bills and kept Coco Chanel and her former lover, von Dincklage, living in relatively high style. It appeared as though aging Coco Chanel would drop out of the Chanel company saga.

At 70 years of age in 1954, Coco Chanel returned to Paris with the intent of restarting her fashion studio. She went to Pierre Wertheimer for advice and money, and he agreed to finance her plan. In return for his help, Wertheimer secured the rights to the Chanel name for all products that bore it, not just perfumes. Once more, Wertheimer’s decision paid off from a business standpoint. Coco Chanel’s fashion lines succeeded in their own right and had the net effect of boosting the perfume’s image. In the late 1950s Wertheimer bought back the 20 percent of the company owned by Bader. Thus, when Coco Chanel died in 1971 at the age of 87, the Wertheimers owned the entire Parfums Chanel operation, including all rights to the Chanel name.

Pierre Wertheimer died six years before Coco Chanel passed away, putting an end to an intriguing and curious relationship of which Parfums Chanel was just one, albeit pivotal, dynamic. Coco Chanel’s attorney, Rene de Chambrun, described the relationship as one based on a businessman’s passion for a woman who felt exploited by him. “Pierre returned to Paris full of pride and excitement [after one of his horses won the 1956 English Derby],” Chambrun recalled in Forbes. “He rushed to Coco, expecting congratulations and praise. But she refused to kiss him. She resented him, you see, all her life.”

Coco Chanel, back in Paris. Source: Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com

Coco Chanel, back in Paris. Source: Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com

There is an interesting interview with the author of “Sleeping with the Enemy” in The New Yorker, where he answers some questions about the Wertheimers, talks about Chanel’s return from exile, and why there is so little discussion about Chanel’s past.

[Q.] As your title makes clear, the book emphasizes Coco Chanel’s wartime life. Why has this story not received much attention over the years?

I have no idea. I can’t figure it out. Either people didn’t want to know or chose not to deal with it. Of course, this story will not please the Wertheimers, one of the richest families in the world. Other than that, I have no idea why not.

[Q.] After the war, Chanel moved to Switzerland. How was it possible that she would ever be able to reëstablish herself in France, as she did in the mid-nineteen-fifties?

The simple answer is Wertheimer money: Chanel was backed by the Wertheimers. But really there was also the fact that, by 1954, most French people didn’t give a damn about who collaborated and who didn’t. De Gaulle had decided that all Frenchmen had been resisters, and all this collaboration business was behind them. And let’s not forget that Chanel was also tremendously talented.

[Q.] After everything Chanel had done to Paul Wertheimer, why did he ultimately agree to finance the reëstablishment of her couture house in 1954? And why did he consent to pay all her expenses—large and small—for the rest of her life?

From the point of view of the Wertheimers, the decision was extremely logical. What they were doing is not buying a business but rather an empire for a lifetime, and indeed that’s what it’s been. Here we are in 2011—can you go to any major city without seeing a Chanel store? It’s the unique mark in the world today.

[Q.] Especially in France—a nation still grappling with the legacy of collaboration—how is it possible that the Chanel brand today bears almost none of the stigma assigned to other brands often associated with Nazi complicity

The work of Robert Paxton never quite rubbed off on our memory of Chanel—and for a simple reason. She is essentially a hard-currency machine. Chanel is an icon, an idol in France—never mind the details of her life, her anti-Semitism, her dealings with the Nazis. Interestingly enough, I should mention that the French have not bought my book—at least not yet. It’s coming out in America and in Britain and in Germany. It’s been translated in Portuguese and translated into Dutch. But the French have yet to buy the book.

Source: entertainment.ru.msn.com

Source: entertainment.ru.msn.com

[Q.] Given Coco Chanel’s wartime past, what do you make of the prominence and popularity of the Chanel brand today? Should anyone still wear Chanel?

I have no feelings against Chanel. You can’t put someone like Klaus Barbie and Chanel in the same category: she didn’t kill anybody; she didn’t torture anybody. Madame Gabrielle Labrunie—Chanel’s grand-niece—said something to me that I found fascinating. She said to me: “You know, Mr. Vaughan, these were very difficult times, and people had to do very terrible things to get along.” Chanel was, very simply put, an enormous opportunist who did what she had to do to get along. [Format “Q.” insertions added by me for sake of clarity.]

I very much agree with him. I think the primary, driving characteristic of Gabrielle Chanel was opportunism, followed closely by a ruthless hunger to succeed at any or all costs. She was petty, avaricious (she was reported to be notorious for not paying her seamstresses as much as others, and treating them harshly), narcissistic, coolly calculating, and pragmatic. In my opinion, if she had her heart set on something (or someone’s husband), she would stop at nothing to get her way. She would sup with the devil, if need be, and she would do it all without a second thought.

The same thing applies to the consequences for that behavior. If she could get away with something, she would do everything to ensure it, no matter what the cost to others. And Chanel never seems to have paid for anything. By 1954, she undoubtedly realised that passions had cooled and a prosecution would be too risky. Too many unpleasant truths would come out about too many powerful people. Far better to drop it all, and pretend that none of it had happened, much as the French did for other dirty memories of those years. By the 1960s, she was dressing the wife of the French President, Madame Pompidou, and re-emerging as a success.

Yes, she was an anti-Semite, but she never seemed to let that get in the way of making money or climbing the social ladder. That is one reason why I laugh at the company’s attempted defense of Chanel. They weakly offer the “Jewish friends” argument, whimpering that she would not have ties to the Rothschilds or some Jewish friends if she were really an anti-Semite. The Rothschilds, the legendary and supremely, galactically wealthy Rothschilds?! Of course she would be their friend! Good God, Chanel would probably have peed in public while standing on her head if the Rothschilds had asked her to. That doesn’t mean that she wasn’t a bigot. I personally happen to believe that she did agree with a number of Nazi beliefs. The idea of a “super man” would very much fit how she saw herself, as well as her snobbish disdain for anyone without power, money, lineage, or some combination thereof. As a whole, though, I think Chanel’s only real, unwavering belief was in the currency and religion of Coco Almighty. Does that excuse her actions? Hardly.

Chanel via The Telegraph and entertainment.ru.msn.com/

Chanel via The Telegraph and entertainment.ru.msn.com/

Two things need to be stated clearly. First, there are very few people alive today who are in a position to truly judge the situation of those wartime years. I did not go through the utter hell that was Nazi occupation, and I cannot know what I would do if I were in Chanel’s shoes. War and desperation can make us do terrible things. I recognize all that, and yet, I can never forgive Gabrielle Chanel her actions. Whenever I read people gushing over her admittedly exquisite taste, her glamourous life, and her luxurious apartments, I think about who she used, slept with, or betrayed. When people talk admiringly about her strong-willed passions and how fabulous she was, I grit my teeth. When people swoon over her exciting love affairs (e.g., a Romanov Imperial Grand Duke, among others), I think instead of her Nazi lover. I simply cannot get past what a vile and loathsome human being she really was.

Second, I want to preempt what is the inevitable response to all this: “genius can be terrible, but it’s still genius.” It is what I call the “Wagner Argument,” and often takes the subtext of “They were a genius, so it’s okay. We can excuse it, or still enjoy their accomplishments.” Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s actually okay. What I want is a more critical, balanced perspective of Gabrielle Chanel that doesn’t white-wash or excuse her. In short, I want the blind, whole-sale, positively cult-like worship of Gabrielle the woman to stop, even if people continue to enjoy the products or things that she achieved. And yes, I don’t think there is anything wrong with buying something with the name “Chanel” on it.

For me, the corporate entity that exists today has nothing to do with Gabrielle Chanel, and hasn’t in decades. That is one reason why I will never stop reviewing her perfumes or buying Chanel products. Certainly, “Parfums Chanel” was largely owned by everyone but Chanel since 1924. She had a mere 10% stake in the company from its birth, and lost even that after the war. Furthermore, she never made a single perfume herself after 1947; the Wertheimers did. Chanel is a multi-billion conglomerate that capitalizes on the personal mystique and legend of Gabrielle Chanel, and they would be foolish not to. It’s only business, as they say.

Nonetheless, the next time you admire something about Chanel, the woman and person, I hope you will remember the other side of the mirror. She was Janus, with one face that reflected a fashion and stylistic trailblazer, a pioneer whose achievements in those particular, narrow fields has to be terribly admired. I certainly do — enormously. But the Roman god, Janus, also has a second face. In the case of Gabrielle Chanel, it rather resembles Dorian Grey’s portrait in the attic: maggot-ridden, venal, ulcerous, oozing internal decay, and thoroughly diseased with amorality, cruelty, corruption, and the blackest of ethics.

BOOK DETAILS:
If you’re interested in Vaughn’s book, Amazon sells Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War in a variety of different formats. The paperback price is $13.13, while the Kindle price is $10.19. It is also available on Amazon UK and Amazon France. I assume it is available on all the other Amazon country sites, though I have not checked. I know that Amazon Australia only has it in Kindle form.

History: Nagako, Japan’s Ferocious Dowager Empress [2004]

ED. NOTE: Regular and perfume readers, please feel to skip this post entirely. You see, once upon a time, I wrote mainly about history under the name “Pandora’s Box” for one of the main, unofficial royalty sites. A few are already posted and hidden in the archives, but I’m in the process of transferring over some more articles that were published back in 2004 and 2005 (and leaving them largely as is), so that everything in one place. I wrote in particular a lot about the Japanese Imperial Family, and this one is a continuation of that general trend. As with all the articles, I certainly don’t expect anyone to read it; most of them are quite academic, very long, for a totally different audience, and have some extremely wonky formatting after the transfer from the old website. So, if your main interest is perfume, please feel free to skip them.

Nagako, Japan’s Ferocious Dowager Empress

Written by Pandora’s Box  – Tuesday, 07 December 2004

The Early Years

empress nagako kojun japan diamond tiara

Empress Nagako, posthumously known as Empress Kojun.

Dowager Empress Nagako was the wife of Emperor Hirohito and the mother of Japan’s current Emperor, Akihito. When she died, only four years ago at the age of 97, she was also the longest living empress consort in Japanese history. She was Crown Princess from 1924 to 1926, Empress from 1925 to 1989, and Empress Dowager from 1989 to 2000. In short, she was close to the throne for 76 years!

She was born on March 6, 1903, Tokyo, the eldest daughter of Prince Kuni who headed one of the eleven cadet branches of the Imperial Family. Her father, a descendent of a 13th century emperor, was the last of his line. And she, in turn, was the last imperial princess to marry into the Japanese Imperial Family.

Princess Nagako.

Princess Nagako.

Her engagement to her distant cousin, then-Crown Prince Hirohito, was unusual for several reasons. For one thing, Princess Nagako had been chosen, in 1914, when she was only eleven years old. According to historian Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, it occurred as follows:

On 14 January 1914, the Empress Sadako invited a number of aristocratic and royal girls to tea at the Concubines’ Pavilion at the Imperial Palace, while Crown Prince Hirohito cast his eye upon them, hidden behind a sliding screen. He selected the princess as his future bride. http://www.geocities.com/jtaliaferro.geo/showa.html

empressnagako1926yn3Age was a minor issue as compared to the Nagako’s lineage. The simple fact is that Nagako didn’t have the background of most imperial consorts. She may have had a royal father but he came from a very minor offshoot of the Imperial Family. Her mother’s background wasn’t much help either, because Lady Shimazu Chikako descended from feudal nobility, as opposed to one of the illustrious aristocratic court families. But the real issue was the Fujiwara factor: for centuries, almost all the Japanese emperors and crown princes had married women from the powerful Fujiwara clan.

The Fujiwara dynasty was one of the most illustrious families in all Japan and, in some ways, was almost like the de facto imperial family. The reason for this is that they were always chosen to act as imperial regents or Kanpaku. Lest you think this was an occasional position due to an emergency involving the Emperor, let me assure you it wasn’t. The Fujiwara clan had acted as “regents” to Emperors who were young and old, incapable and perfectly capable. In short, they served as the real emperors and purveyors of power, behind the scenes, while the titular ruler was just a ceremonial figurehead. http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Nagako

Thus, despite Nagako’s impeccable lineage, hot debate raged over her eligibility to become the wife of a crown prince who, upon ascension to the throne, would be revered as a “living God.” Adding to the controversy was political intrigue at the highest level.

One of the most powerful men in Japan came forward to allege that the princess was colorblind, thus making her ineligible on genetic grounds to take a place in the imperial line. Field Marshal Yamagata headed a samurai clan that was a rival to Nagako’s mother’s family and he wanted the Crown Prince to choose a bride from his own clan.

Yamagata, the principal architect of the Imperial Japanese Army and arguably the most powerful man in late Meiji and Taisho Japan, vehemently opposed the engagement for seven years. In 1919, Yamagata arranged the publication of a medical journal article, which alleged a history of color-blindness in the family of the princess’s mother, the Shimazu of Satsuma. This alleged hereditary malady, he argued, would damage the flawlessness of the Imperial bloodline. Prominent newspapers printed the allegations and Yamagata demanded that the Imperial Household Ministry annul the engagement.

Prince Kuni vowed to commit suicide and kill Nagako if the Imperial Household Ministry cancelled the engagement. He allegedly enlisted the aid of nationalistic Tokyo gangsters to thwart Yamagata. The gangsters organized large rallies in Tokyo, which denounced the plots against Princess Nagako as disloyalty to the throne. Emperor Taisho intervened on Nagako’s behalf by dismissing the article on color blindness. “I hear,” the emperor told Yamagata, “that even science is fallible.” http://www.geocities.com/jtaliaferro.geo/showa.html

Emperor Showa or Hirohito.

Emperor Showa or Hirohito.

The engagement was finally announced on June 19, 1921 by the Imperial Household Ministry, the IHA’s predecessor. However, the couple did not get married for several more years. The Princess was still quite young but the main reason was what happened in 1923, the year the imperial wedding was supposed to take place. That year, a huge earthquake destroyed half of Tokyo, killing 10,000 people. The wedding was delayed once again.

All during this time, Nagako was being groomed for her new position. In 1914, within a month being chosen by the Empress and Crown Prince, Nagako left school. She began receiving years of private instruction to assist her in her role as the future empress. She was taught:Chinese and Japanese literature, French, calligraphy, poetry composition, needlework, flower arrangement and the intricacies of court etiquette, all under the direction of seven tutors. During that period, she and crown prince only met nine times, and never in private. Id.

The wedding finally took place on January 26, 1924. Nagako was 20, her groom, 22. Less than two years later, on December 25, 1925, Hirohito ascended the throne and she became Empress.

The New Empress

Nagako wasn’t controversial just because she broke the age-long tradition of Fujiwara family consorts and the fuss surrounding her engagement. She also caused chatter because of her difficulty in conceiving a male heir. Under Japan’s succession laws, only a male can ascend the throne, thereby continuing the family’s unbroken 1500+-year-old line.

Emperor_Hirohito_and_empress_Kojun_of_japanLike Crown Princess Masako now, it wasn’t easy for Empress Nagako to have a male heir. In 1932, Hirohito and Nagako had been married for eight years but still hadn’t had a boy. Empress Nagako had borne four children, all girls, of who three had survived. She was pregnant with her fifth child and the court was in a state of unrest over the future of the succession.

Empress Nagako had a miscarriage in late 1932. The succession question became so serious that pressure mounted for Emperor Hirohito to take a concubine. Although the concubine system was banned by post-war measures, this was still many years before the war. However, Hirohito was deeply opposed to the concubine system, even though it was as one of the only reasons why Japan had never had problems with the succession, up to that point that is.

Under the concubine system, rotating teams of part-time mistresses, usually twelve, assigned to the Emperor by the noble families of Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto. By custom, an emperor dropped a silk handkerchief at the door of the mistress on duty whenever the problem of his successor crossed his mind. Resulting children were brought up, not in the Imperial household, but by the families who had sent their daughters, whose sons thus founded collateral branches of the Imperial line from which new emperors could descend. At the risk of some inbreeding, concubinage ensured that a crown prince was almost always available to succeed a deceased emperor.

Murray Sayle, “Sex Saddens A Clever Princess,” (Japan Policy Research Institute Working Paper No. 66: April 2000) at http://www.jpri.org/publications/workingpapers/wp66.html

The concubine system may have been responsible for prior emperors, but it wasn’t for Hirohito. While his own father, Taisho, and the Meiji Emperor before him, were all sons of concubines, Hirohito was the son of Taisho’s legal empress.

Furthermore, Hirohito had abolished concubinage in 1924, the year he married Nagako. One reason was the British royal family who had greatly impressed him on a visit he made to London. After witnessing their close personal interactions, Hirohito decided he would try to emulate them and the European system. Hirohito was so impressed by the West that he also installed a nine-hole golf course on the Imperial Palace grounds, played tennis, wore Western clothes on all but the most ceremonial occasions, and ate a proper English breakfast every morning. Apparently, he developed a taste for eggs and bacon on his tour of England, when Crown Prince.

The royal court couldn’t care less about the Western system, not when the succession was at stake. After eight years without a male heir, there was widespread panic among the royal courtiers that the imperial line would be broken. The Emperor insisted on remaining monogamous but, even so, a senior royal official decided to find him a concubine. He searched high and low for a proper, and attractive, woman of high breeding:

Ten princesses were selected of whom three made the final cut, and one (allegedly the prettiest) was rumoured to have visited the palace and played cards with Hirohito (in the presence of Nagako). The monogamous Hirohito supposedly took no further notice of her. In early 1933 Nagako became pregnant again and on December 3, 1933, she gave birth to Prince Akihito. The personal crisis was over.

Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the making of modern Japan (Harper Collins 2000), at 271.

Empress NagakoThe Emperor and Empress eventually had two more children, for a total of five daughters and two sons. Only two of these children maintained their imperial status, Crown Prince Akihito and his younger brother Prince Hitachi. The reason can be traced to post-war changes to the law which sought to decrease the size of the Imperial Family. Under the 1947 changes, the princesses automatically lost their imperial status when they married commoners.

As parents, the Imperial couple generally abided by tradition, albeit with a few big changes triggered by the war. In time-honored imperial fashion, Prince Akihito, the future emperor, was separated from his parents at about the age of three and raised by nurses, tutors and chamberlains. Yet in a departure from custom, at six Akihito was sent to school with commoners in order to broaden him.

The Post-War Years

During the war, the Emperor and Empress remained at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. When the Americans began bombing Tokyo, the couple sent their children away to the countryside for safety.

After the war, the Emperor insisted on a Christian tutor for his heir, Akihito, who was being hailed as the “future hope of Japan” amidst speculation that the Emperor would abdicate. Always aware of appearances and PR, Hirohito approved the appointment of an American Quaker, Mrs. Elizabeth Gray Vining, as his son’s tutor. He was well aware of Quaker pacifism and what the symbolic ramifications would be given the war and his own reputation. As numerous historians have made clear, Hirohito was the master of manipulating his image for public consumption, especially after the war when he reinvented himself completely. See e.g., Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Collins 2000). Id.

Still, in all fairness to Emperor Hirohito, he seemed truly concerned about his son’s education. It’s been said that the only potential candidates whom he ruled out for the position of chief tutor “were bible-thumping proselytizers of some other Christian sects that were then active in Japan.” Murray Sayle, “Sex Saddens A Clever Princess,” supra. According to one commentator, the Emperor “paid Mrs. Vining US$2,000 a year from his own pocket, at a time when his personal assets were estimated at $70,000 (the Japanese royal family is far from wealthy, by international standards, even to this day).” Id.

I’m not sure Mr. Sayle is completely correct in his interpretation of the Emperor’s financial status. The question of Hirohito’s assets is a complicated one and there are numerous sources which question the Emperor’s carefully cultivated image of being impoverished. By many accounts, he was quite wealthy at the time of his death, even though it wasn’t a millionth of his prior (multi-billion dollar) net worth before the war. Furthermore, he left a multi-million dollar estate upon his death. Still, the main point is that the Emperor seemed concerned about his son’s development and took a personal role in directing his future.

[Empress-Nagako-of-Japan,-three-quarter-length-portrait,-standing,...-painting-artwork-printEmpress Nagako went along with it, just as she did with everything her husband said. She was a firm believer in protocol and in a woman’s submission to the more important man in the relationship. Especially if he was the Emperor. Nagako was always “keenly attuned to court customs, and always showed a subject’s deference to the emperor, maintaining a modest presence.” “Japan’s Dowager Empress Dies,” BBC, (June 16, 2000) at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/793352.stm.In fact, it been said that the Empress’ hide-bound observation of protocol and gender roles was one of the things which made her resent and dislike her daughter-in-law, Michiko, whom she felt took too many liberties and shone beyond the Crown Prince. But we will get to that later….

After the war, the occupying powers and the postwar Japanese government sought to demystify the monarchy. It was all part of the plan to reduce the divine aura of the monarchy, something that had helped contribute to WWII. In accordance with the two government’s wishes, the Empress adopted a more public, approachable role. During the American occupation, she visited orphans, bereaved families and war veterans. She also became the honorary president of the Japanese Red Cross from 1947 to 1989.

The American occupational forces and the post-war Japanese government may have intended to strip the Japanese Imperial Family of their traditions, divine legacy and power, but Empress Nagako was made of sterner stuff. The day after the American occupation ended, the Empress voiced her intention to revert back to wearing kimonos in public. She was firmly of the old school and clung to the old ways.

Despite the Empress’ focus on upholding ancient traditions and manners, she was nonetheless a trailblazer in smaller, more innocuous ways. For example, she was the first Japanese imperial consort to travel abroad. She accompanied Emperor Hirohito on his European tour in 1971 and later on his state visit to the United States in 1975. On those trips, she became known for her classical elegance and her “empress smile.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/793352.stm

In her private life, the Empress was an accomplished painter, calligrapher and poet. Under the pseudonym To-en, or “Peach Garden,” she created a number of traditional Japanese-style paintings, specializing in still life and landscapes. She presented a painting of grapes to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II when the imperial couple visited that country in 1971. See, “Imperial family loses witness to century’s turbulent events,” (hereinafter referred to as “Imperial Family loses”) http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0XPQ/is_2000_June_19/ai_62835986

Empress KojunBut there was a dark side to the Empress. Her image as a devoted wife, talented artist and poet, and the warm-hearted granny of her later years stands in sharp contrast to the frequent rumours regarding her harsh treatment of her daughter-in-law, Michiko, the current Empress. Michiko was the first commoner ever to marry an Emperor, in a marriage that was a huge break from tradition.

The Empress, who was often described as “ferocious,” probably did not let Michiko forget her common background. The simple fact of the matter is that Nagako — and the IHA (Imperial Household Agency) — were horrified by Akihito’s choice. A royal aide to the Emperor described the Empress’ reaction in his diary entry for Oct. 11, 1958, shortly before Michiko was officially picked as the bride. According to the royal aide, the Empress talked to Princesses Chichibu and Takamatsu, her sisters-in-law, about the situation and cried out “something to the effect that it is outrageous” to choose a commoner. See, “Imperial family loses,” supra.

Crown Prince Akihito and Michiko Shoda on their wedding day in 1959.

Crown Prince Akihito and Michiko Shoda on their wedding day in 1959.

It’s been widely rumoured that the Empress tried to stop the engagement with all her might, but she didn’t succeed in changing her son’s mind. The Japanese people, however, rejoiced over the marriage and saw it as a welcome move that brought the Imperial Family closer to the people.

The couple set up house in the Togu Gosho, the Crown Prince’s unpretentious residence half a mile from the Imperial Palace. But reports continued to seep out that Empress Nagako resented the intrusion of a commoner into the family. See, Michael Walsh, “Akihito: The son also rises,” Time Magazine (January 16, 1989)(archived text not available online).

The situation was exacerbated when, in another break with tradition, Akihito and Michiko chose to raise their three children at home. Empress Nagako could barely manage the fact that the new royal was a commoner; the second break from centuries of tradition was the last straw.

Empress Michiko when young

Empress Michiko, as a young Crown Princess.

The Empress’ disapproval and dislike of the new Crown Princess did not soften over time. In the early 1960s, the nation watched as then-Crown Princess Michiko, previously described as “effervescent” and the epitome of womanly charm, grew gaunt and somber. She even lost her voice for 7 months. It’s unclear if she couldn’t speak or if she simply didn’t want to but, either way, one thing was certain: she was no longer the woman she had been before her marriage. Rumours swirled that she had had a complete nervous breakdown.

All fingers pointed back to Empress Nagako, although it must be said that she had help from the ever-wonderful IHA. It was only upon Nagako’s death in 2000 that the cause of Michiko’s deterioration was publicly identified: the Reuters news agency bluntly stated that the Dowager Empress had reportedly bullied her daughter-in-law into submission and a breakdown. Seehttp://www.mmjp.or.jp/amlang.atc/worldnow/00/june/17.htm. See, also, http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Michiko.

Nagako was truly Japan’s version of China’s “The Dragon Lady,” or Empress Tzu Hsi. She was imperious, extremely strong-willed, tough as nails, controlling (behind the scenes), arrogant, unable to relate to the masses, coldly haughty, and royal beyond royal. She was supremely aware of her imperial lineage in an ever changing world that became more and more modern, that had less and less regard for the old ways. She had no tolerance for modern or relaxed standards, even in her own son, let alone his poor, commoner wife. She might have been born in the early years of the 20th century, but Nagako was a thoroughly 19th century woman, especially once the royal tutors finished with her.

The Empress often had a wonderful smile for the general public but, privately, she was haughtily aware of her background and disdainfully contemptuous of even the smallest restriction on imperial rights. Especially after the war. She took the Emperor’s forced renunciation of divinity very badly, as shown by letters to her son at the time.

For all her traditional ways, Nagako essentially played the gender game and gave lip service to the socially superior male in Japan’s male-dominated society. She acted in a passive and submissive manner towards her imperial consort, but, at the back of her mind, she always remembered and heeded her father’s pre-marital advice that Hirohito was a weak vessel whom she was duty bound to prop up. And so she did. While Hirohito was often indecisive, she forced him onto to action, at least in the private sphere. Nagako was too much of a product of 19thcentury thinking to even try to influence the Emperor in national or political matters. In all else, however, she held sway.

An intimidating, multi-talented, highly trained and educated Empress, she was a powerful presence at the Japanese court for decades. And she certainly seems to have frightened her daughter-in-law into a collapse. Given the grief she herself was given over her own engagement to Hirohito, the irony is huge….

Nagako’s marriage to Emperor Hirohito lasted 65 years, longer than any other imperial couple in Japan’s history. When Hirohito died in 1989, she assumed the title of Empress Dowager. At that time, she was in failing health herself. Her last public appearance was in 1988. During her remaining years, she lived a reclusive life at the couple’s residence, the Fukiage Palace, looked after by a full, almost medieval imperial court of some 40 court ladies and medical experts.See, “Imperial family loses,” supra.

In 1995, Nagako became Japan’s longest-living empress dowager when she turned 92, surpassing Empress Kanshi, who died in 1127. At the time of her death at the age of 97 in 2000 she had been an empress for 75 years. Akihito granted his mother the posthumous title of Empress Kojun. The Emperor chose the name due to its meaning which is as follows: “The character for ‘Ko,’ which symbolizes fragrance or beauty, is a reference to the late Empress’s artistic name (Toen or ‘Peace Orchard’). The character for ‘Jun’ refers to the Empress’s kind-hearted personality.” Taliaferro, suprahttp://www.geocities.com/jtaliaferro.geo/showa.html

Kind-hearted” — not quite the phrase I would use to describe the Empress. On a good day, I would opt for The London Times’ description of her as “ferocious;” on a bad day, well…. I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

One thing, however, is undisputed: she was an intimate insider to some of the most important events of the 20th century. But the Empress was more than just a passive observer. The Empress might have been a 19th century woman in terms of upbringing, but she helped to shape the post-war monarchy and she definitely impacted the current Imperial Family. The Empress didn’t always adapt well to the changes – and she definitely was a martinet – but she was also one of the best examples of the multi-layered, dichotomous undercurrents running through the Imperial Family, their situation, the conflict with the past, and their uneasy adjustment to their modern, post-war life.

–  pandorasbox-etoile.co.uk

[ED. NOTE: If you’re interested in the Japanese Imperial Family, its history, the Imperial Household Agency, and the ultra-nationalist politics at play, I have written a four-part analysis on the issue. Part I of the Chrysanthemum Throne series covers more historical background, while Parts III and IV covers the post-war era and the current imperial family, along with the plight of the current Crown Princess, the tragic Masako.]

History: What if….? The Chaos Theory & Royal History. [2005]

ED. NOTE: Regular and perfume readers, please feel to skip this post entirely. You see, once upon a time, I wrote mainly about history under the name “Pandora’s Box” for one of the main, unofficial royalty sites. A few are already posted and hidden in the archives, but I’m in the process of transferring over some more articles that were published back in 2004 and 2005 (and leaving them largely as is), so that everything in one place. In this case, it’s an article that examines alternative history and how easily things would have been different if one tiny, small event had not occurred.

For example, the Tsarevitch’s hemophilia leading the way for Rasputin, the miscarriages of Catherine of Aragon & Charles II’s Catherine de Braganza, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that triggered the start of WWI, or if a royal heir had not died, paving the way for Queen Victoria’s unexpected rise to the throne. Consider it an examination of the “Chaos Theory” as applied to royal history, if you will, and a light-hearted, extremely speculative game. As with all the articles, I certainly don’t expect anyone to read it; most of them are quite academic, very long, for a totally different audience, and have some extremely wonky formatting after the transfer from the old website. So, if your main interest is perfume, please feel free to skip them.

What if…. ?

Written by Pandora’s Box – Tuesday, 04 January 2005

The “Chaos Theory” posits that the tiniest event half a world away can have enormous consequences, in the most unexpected of ways. History is not immune from causality or the strange twists of fate. A crazy monk, a face on a coin, an assassination, a baby’s death… these things can have unexpected, long-lasting consequences. In fact, they can change the course of history. But what if some of these seemingly minor, inconsequential events had never occurred? Today, we’ll explore that subject and some of the hypothetical situations which could have arisen if events had turned out differently. The potential outcome is obviously speculative and up for conjecture, but there is usually evidence to support one side or another. In this light-hearted parlour game, I’ll tell you a few of the things I sometimes wonder about, and how I think history was impacted. Perhaps you will see a different outcome. If so, let me know, along with some of your own favorite “what ifs.” At the end of my column, I’ll give you some information on submitting your choices.

* * *

What if…
What if Catherine of Aragon had given Henry VIII a male heir? Much of Henry’s obsession with securing the succession stemmed from the lessons he had learned from his father, Henry VII, and the bloody conflict of the War of the Roses. Henry knew full well that a male heir would secure the Tudor line, prevent rival claimants and preclude another devastating political conflict.

Had Catherine of Aragon given Henry a son (or two), it’s quite likely that Henry would have remained married to her. If he had not sought to remarry, he would never have split from Romeor created the Church of England to justify his actions. He certainly would not have married Anne Boleyn. Yes, he probably would have continued his affairs, but it’s unlikely he’d have had six wives. Even more significantly, there would not have been a legitimate daughter calledElizabeth, who would later become one of England’s greatest monarchs.

* * *

What if…
What if Arch-duke Franz Ferdinand had not been assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914? One might argue that, but for the assassination, the tenuous balance of power which had existed between various rival empires would not have been upset. If World War I had not occurred, then neither would have the political, economic and social conditions of the interwar years, which led to World War II. And that, in turn, led to the rise of Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, the spread of Stalinism after Hitler’s defeat and much more.

Even if we don’t string out causality so far down the line, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand had other big consequences. The war which ensued decimated much of the aristocratic class inEngland, triggered economic ruin in Russia, led to the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire. Some historians might argue that the economic and social conditions in Russia would have made Revolution inevitable, but there is little doubt that the Great War exacerbated existing conditions and speeded up the eventual outcome.

The Great War also created much of the conditions and problems existing today in the Middle East. In the Balfour Declaration, and some other contradictory documents such as the Sykes-Picot treaty, the British promised all things to all people in the Middle East in return for their support against the Ottoman Empire. Present-day Israel, the area being fought over as Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan (formerly Transjordan)… all these areas were impacted by British promises, both during and after the War.

In short, the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand is perhaps the best example of the Chaos Theory. Franz-Ferdinand was not the ruler of an Empire, and he was merely the Emperor’s nephew, albeit very close in the line of succession. Nonetheless, his death triggered events which led to cataclysmic changes at every level of society, and in almost every country on earth.

* * *

What if…
What if George III had agreed to taxation with representation for the American colonies? One of the key causes of the American Revolution was the question of taxation. The English government felt that the colonists should pay taxes as compensation for the services and benefits which they received. The colonists believed that they shouldn’t be taxed if they were not given political representation.

Conflicts between the colonists and the Crown grew worse after the French and Indian war, which severely depleted the Treasury. King George III wanted the colonists to pay for the war through higher taxes and issued something called the Stamp Act. The angry colonists, led by Samuel Adams and James Otis, came up with the slogan “No taxation without representation” and petitioned the King to revoke the Act. He didn’t. A few years later, another statute – the Townshend Act – was enacted which taxed tea, among other daily necessities. Although the Townshend Duties were subsequently revoked, the tea tax remained in place. A few years of relative calm ensued, but trouble lurked under the surface:

[T]he crises of the past decade had created incompatible mindsets on opposite sides of the Atlantic. King George III and Parliament still faced money problems and were determined to assert their powers to tax the colonies and regulate trade for the benefit of the entire British empire. On the other hand, the colonists’ ideas about taxation without representation, about actual versus virtual representation, about tyranny and corruption in the British government, and indeed about the nature of government, sovereignty, and constitutions had crystalized during this period.

The Library of Congress, The American Revolution 1763-1783, at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/features/timeline/amrev/rebelln/rebelln.html

The wheels of change were moving inexorably towards rebellion and, eventually, towards revolution. But what if the King had agreed to provide the colonists with a voice in Parliament when they had asked back in 1765 or at later points in time? The decision might have diffused the seeds of resentment and prevented them from being fanned into the flames of actual conflict.

Or perhaps not. One cannot discount the impact of ideas, and the Age of Enlightenment had sown the seeds of intellectual questioning against the established political order. From Russia to Europe to the Americas, revolutionary ideas about the nature of government and its relationship to the people were being debated. The feelings held true regardless of whether it was France or America, Voltaire or John Hancock, a feudal regime or the New World, a question of daily bread or taxes on tea. In both cases, the result was the same: the Old World political model was seen as unfair, undemocratic and inherently corrupt.

Then again, ideas are one thing, but economic reality is another. History has shown time and time again that the masses are rarely moved to radical revolutionary change unless their economic livelihood is on the line. Karl Marx published Das Kapital in 1867 but few Russians actively sought revolution until famine, huge wartime losses and an influenza pandemic turned their daily existence upside down. That was almost fifty years later. Clearly, ideas only go so far; but people don’t necessarily act on them until there is no food on the table.

In short, the taxation issue probably had a greater impact on the daily life of the American colonists than any intellectual discourse on the nature of government. Had there been some change in the laws – even if it was only indirect change, through political representation and the hope of softening future tax duties – the American Revolution might not have occurred. At the very least, the parties might have arrived at an arrangement similar to that of the British government and the present-day Commonwealth.

If either of these two scenarios had come to pass, history might have been very different. All it would have taken was one tiny law regarding representation, representation in a Parliament already dominated by British aristocrats who would have voted for their own vested interests and along party lines. They certainly would not have supported measures benefiting far-flung colonists against the Crown, so where was the harm? Yet that’s the very reason why, realistically speaking, the colonists would have remained dissatisfied. Representation might have been nothing more than a temporary band-aid on an already infected wound. We will never know one way or another but, oh, the possibilities….

* * *

What if…
What if Charles II’s wife, Catherine de Braganza, had been able to have an heir? The Queen’s inability to conceive and carry a child to term led Charles II to designate his younger brother, James, as his heir. James, the Duke of York, was a Roman Catholic and extremely unpopular.

He ascended the throne as James II in England (and James VII in Scotland), and was England’s last Catholic monarch. His subjects distrusted him due to his religion and “Popish” policies which they felt made him a pawn of Rome. James II was eventually deposed in “the Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and fled to France where he lived out the rest of his life. He was replaced on the throne first by his daughter Mary (Queen Mary II), and then by his daughter Anne. Both daughters were Protestants.

Charles II’s failure to have a legitimate heir and his choice of a Catholic as successor triggered a chain of consequences whose impact lingers to this day. The two interconnected events led to political statutes which changed not only the line of succession, but also the qualifications for succession. In 1701, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement which ensured that no Catholic would ever rule England again. It stated that, if Queen Anne had no heirs, only descendents of Sophia, the Protestant Electress of Hanover, were eligible to ascend the throne. It also stated that any member of the royal family who married a Catholic would be excluded from the line of succession.

The Act changed the political landscape. Queen Anne had no surviving heirs. Since she outlived the Electress Sophia, the terms of the Act of Settlement kicked in. Sophia’s son ascended the British throne as George I, the first of the Hanoverian kings. And, obviously, the line remains unbroken to this day, since the current monarch is also one of Sophia’s descendents.

The Act’s proscriptions regarding marriage to a Catholic also remain in effect. When Prince Michael of Kent married a Catholic, Baroness Marie-Christine Von Reibnitz, in 1978, he immediately and automatically lost his place in the line of succession. At the time, he was eighth in line to the throne.

Would things have been different if Charles II had had a legitimate heir? Possibly. Although Protestantism had a strong hold in England by the 1600s, James II was not the wisest or the best of kings. One can argue that his religion was the straw which broke the camel’s back. Had there been a different ruler on the throne, Parliament might not have felt the need to pass a formal rule prohibiting Catholic monarchs or marriages. At the very least, the succession would not have passed to the descendants of the Electress of Hanover.

* * *

What if…
What if Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI had been successful in their attempt to escape France?The initial stages of the French Revolution took place in 1789. The King and his family were imprisoned in the Tuileries palace but life was not (yet) the horrific misery which it would eventually become. Although the palace was a dark, dank, gloomy (and allegedly cursed) place, the Queen was permitted a few ladies-in-waiting, her possessions, and some minimal comforts. The King received the same treatment.

Part of the reason was a political fiction which was thrust on the King. Although the King tried to pretend the Revolution had occurred with his consent, few were fooled by this pretense. The simple reality was that the King was a prisoner who had little choice but to accede to the decrees of the National Assembly.

The royal couple remained imprisoned for two years. But in 1791, the Queen’s alleged lover, a Swede by the name of Axel Ferson, helped plan an escape. His plan had initially called for the King and Queen to leave Paris in a small, fast coach; their children would travel separately to avoid suspicion. But Marie-Antoinette refused to leave her children. While her maternal instincts are understandable, her position on another issue was not. The Queen stupidly insisted on bringing almost every possession, article of clothing, and knickknack she owned. Between her insistence that the entire family travel together and her wish to bring everything but the kitchen sink, there was no choice but to travel in a large, slow coach.

The decision proved catastrophic. Not only did it slow down the escape but it also made the royal family stand out. The overburdened coach made it as far as Varennes, almost to the German border, when they were caught. A peasant recognized Louis from his face on French coins! He sounded the alarm and the royal family was captured. They were brought back to Paris under armed guard and their fate hung in the balance. The National Assembly suspended the rights and “powers” of the King, and began to discuss abdication. More significantly, for the first time, they began to discuss the possibility of a Republic. And execution.

One might argue that abdication, assassination and a republic were inevitable outcomes of the Revolution, but there is another school of thought which disputes that conclusion. Before the royal family’s flight, regicide was generally considered an unthinkable option which was advocated only by the most violent of extremists. While kings had been killed in the past, it was usually by foreign enemies, or during periods of political upheaval, warfare or invasion. More to the point, it was usually something which only an equal was permitted to do. As Alexander the Great reportedly said, “only a King may kill a King.” With a few exceptions, such as Oliver Cromwell, it was almost unheard of for a king’s subjects to kill him. One reason was the theory of the Divine Right of Kings which argued that kings were God’s appointed, annointed representative on Earth. To kill God’s representative…. Well, you know how the story goes.

Here, there is no doubt that the French Royal Family’s failed escape cemented their fate. After the flight, it was no longer possible to continue with the illusion that the King supported the Revolution or its reforms. The moderates in the National Assembly were pushed aside by extremists who argued that the royal family’s attempted escape proved they were enemies of the French people. And from that point, it was only a tiny hop, skip and a jump to demanding their heads. Literally.

How would things have ended if the royal family had succeeded in their escape? There is little doubt that the extremists like Robespierre would have used a successful escape to hijack the Revolution, as he did with the unsuccessful attempt. But once the sound and fury of the Reign of Terror ended, then what? It’s quite probable that the course of events would have continued as they did until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. At that point, however, the “what if” scenario becomes interesting. If the French royal family had survived, they would probably have sought the protection and shelter of England. After Waterloo, it wouldn’t have been Louis XVIII, the King’s brother, who would have been placed on the throne but his son, the young Dauphin and future Louis XVII. What would have happened then? I don’t have the faintest clue but it’s certainly an intriguing hypothetical to contemplate.

* * *

What if…
What if Tsarevitch Alexei, Tsar Nicholas II’s heir, had not been a hemophiliac? Nicholas and Alexandra had tried desperately for a son, only to have four daughters until, at long last, Alexei was born. His hemophilia was the only reason why Empress Alix turned to the mad monk, Rasputin, who seemed able to stop Alexei’s bleeding. In Alix’s eyes, Rasputin was the only one capable of helping and curing her young son. As a result, he gained enormous influence and control over the Empress who treated him as her closest confidant after the Tsar himself. No matter how debauched or depraved his actions, she looked the other way. By 1911, many of the top positions in the government were filled with his appointees and followers.

Rasputin’s unpopularity and her refusal to curb his increasingly degenerate behavior led to enormous scandal and vicious rumours. Gossip ensued about Alix’s relationship with Rasputin, as well as that of her young daughters. By 1916, things had reached a fevered pitch. The war was going badly, Russia was suffering enormous casualties, and food was scarce. The people were beginning to mutter about the Empress’ German origins. It was well known that the Tsar’s policies and decisions were shaped by “that German woman,” as Alix was labeled. It was equally well known that “the German woman” was controlled by Rasputin. People were beginning to think that Rasputin had become the true lord of Russia, and rebellion was in the air. Yet Alix still would not hear a word against him.

In 1916, Rasputin was murdered by a group of aristocratic princes. But it was too late. Only a few months later, the Tsar was forced to abdicate and the Romanovs were imprisoned. The wheels of revolution had slowly begun to turn, leading to the tragic events of 1918.

Would things have turned out differently if Alexei had not been a hemophiliac? I don’t believe so, given the impact of the war and Russia’s underlying economic and social problems. However, it’s quite likely that Rasputin would not have gained power over the Imperial couple, thereby obviating the need to assassinate him. And his assassination was, arguably, almost as damaging as his life had been. As the Tsar’s sister, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlova, wrote in her memoirs: “His death came too late to change the course of events. His dreadful name had become too thoroughly a symbol of disaster. The daring of those who killed him to save their country was miscalculated. All of the participants in the plot, with the exception of Prince Youssoupov later understood that in raising their hands to preserve the old regime they struck it, in reality, its final blow.”

* * *

What if…
What if Prince Charles had been permitted to marry the woman he loved from the onset? I’ve phrased this question carefully because I’d really prefer to stay out of the endless Charles, Camilla and Diana debates. My question is not about Charles and Diana’s marriage but, rather, how things might have been if the marriage had never taken place.

Obviously, one thing to take into consideration is the fact that Camilla Shand was unavailable from 1973 onwards. Camilla married Andrew Parker Bowles while Prince Charles was away on a naval mission. By some accounts, she was mad about Andrew Parker Bowles from the onset. Other reports, however, claim that she only married him because she thought Charles would never propose since she didn’t fit the bill as a suitable consort. Whatever the truth, let’s pretend that Camilla was available and single.

What if the future King of England had married the woman he loved from the onset? Perhaps the better question is, what if the rules about suitable consorts had been different back then, such that Charles could have married the one woman whom he obviously can’t be without? Charles is in his mid 50s now, but he got married when he was 32. Although people’s characters are rather well-formed by that age, how would he have been if he’d been in a happy marriage? How would it have impacted his eventual reign as monarch? We’ll never know the answers to these questions but, again, it’s something to consider.

* * *

What if…
Speaking of marriages, what if the relationship between David, The Prince of Wales and subsequent Duke of Windsor, and Wallis Simpson had ended in a different manner? There are numerous reports which indicate the British Establishment was more concerned about Edward as a monarch than it was about his relationship with an American divorcée. For example, the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, was contemptuous of the Prince’s overall character. And it didn’t help that Edward/David seemed to be ratifying, if only in appearance, the Hitler regime. Quite simply, the Establishment was alarmed of what would happen when the Prince ascended the throne.

Be that as it may, if Parliament and the Commonwealth had agreed to a morganatic marriage or if Edward VIII had not abdicated but given up Wallis instead, how would history be today? Would the future King have seen Hitler as he truly was, and not just as the man who saved Germanyfrom the brinks of an unbearable Depression and economic collapse? Or would he have continued in his support, unaware or disbelieving of Hitler’s plans for the Jews? Would he have continued despite inevitable opposition from his close friend and supporter, Winston Churchill, one of the lone voices in the desert warning against the German threat? Or would he have approved of Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy, as did so many in positions of power at the time? More to the point, what would have happened when war broke out, something which Hitler’s long-term plans made inevitable?

It’s impossible to know the answers to these questions but one thing is likely: so long as there was an independent Britain, there would still be a Queen Elizabeth II. In the early 1930s, there was a popular saying that Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, was not “heir conditioned.” It meant that he was sterile. The reason was that the Prince of Wales had the mumps when he was young. Some reports even allege that he suffered the rare occurrence of a viral outbreak on his testicles.

Regardless of location, the mumps made one thing very clear: whether or not he abdicated, whether or not he married Wallis Simpson, it’s quite unlikely that he would have been able to have children. Thus, his brother and his heirs would have been next in line. And Princess Elizabeth would have eventually ascended the throne.

* * *

What if…
What if Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent (later George IV) had not died in childbirth with her baby? The Prince Regent had only one child with his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, whom he detested. His beloved daughter, Princess Charlotte, married Prince Leopold of Belgian in a love match. Her death in 1917 came as a huge blow to the Prince Regent. More importantly, it changed the line of succession to the throne. After the death of George IV, his younger brother ascended the throne as William IV. The new King had no legitimate heirs, so his niece, Victoria, became his heir. In short, if Princess Charlotte had not died, there would not have been a Queen Victoria.

Without Queen Victoria, and her wise consort Albert, many of the incredible achievements of Victorian era might not have occurred. Under her reign, there was incredible overseas expansion; Prince Albert’s brilliant handling of the “Trent Incident” which kept England out of the American civil war; there was a long period of domestic stability, free of the internal political upheavals or profligacy which had marked the reigns of earlier rulers; and Britainexperienced an unprecedented economic boom. True, the Industrial Revolution would have occurred regardless of the person occupying the throne, but the impact of Prince Albert’s contributions in this area cannot be discounted.

Similarly, one cannot ignore the beneficial impact of royal continuity. By having the same monarch on the throne for decades – especially one who had numerous legitimate heirs– Victoria provided political stability in a way which England had not experienced since the George III.

More importantly, “[t]o the Empire, she brought a dignity, style, and most important, a validation of the monarchy that had not been witnessed since, perhaps, Elizabeth I.” Ilana Miller, Queen Victoriahttp://www.victoriaspast.com/FrontPorch/queenvictoria.htm. She wisely used her powerless position to unite the country, particularly in the political realm where she sought to avoid the political strife which had plagued her predecessors. She accomplished this through her style of working with her prime ministers, especially Disraeli and Melbourne.

Victoria also united the country in the example she set in her personal life. By emphasizing the family unit and simple values, she seemed a more approachable monarch than the profligate, extravagant Prince Regent or the very Germanic, early Hanover kings. The people were able to feel as though she – and her family – were just like them, although obviously nothing could be further from the truth. But, if Princess Charlotte had lived and given birth to a child, none of that would have happened and England might be a very different place today.

* * * * *

To My Readers: These are just a few of the many “what ifs” that intrigue me. If you have any other royal scenarios which capture your imagination, please submit them. Ideally, I’d like my column next week to be devoted to your ideas or comments on this subject. Almost every country has a rich royal history, so the more wide-ranging, the better.

When you write, please let me know if I have your consent to publish your comments (with possible editing for space or clarity) and the name/email/description which you’d like me to use in quoting you. If you can write a brief explanation on why a certain event is important in your eyes, all the better, but please don’t think that a long discourse is necessary. All that’s needed is a few sentences to explain your thinking or the background of events to other readers who might not know as much as you on a subject.

– Pandora’s Box
pandorasbox -etoile.co.uk

History: Urban Legends, of the Royal Kind… [2004]

ED. NOTE: I don’t always write about perfume. In fact, once upon a time, I wrote mainly about history under the name “Pandora’s Box” for one of the main, unofficial royalty sites. A few are already posted and hidden in the archives, but I’m in the process of transferring over some more articles that were published back in 2004 and 2005 (and leaving them largely as is), so that everything in one place. I certainly don’t expect anyone to read them, especially as most of them are quite academic, very long, for a totally different audience, and have some extremely wonky formatting after the transfer from the old website. So, if your main interest is perfume, please feel free to skip them.

Urban Legends, of the Royal Kind…

Written by Pandora’s Box – Tuesday, 16 November 2004

There are hundreds of urban legends about royals – in history, on the internet, in common parlance, they abound everywhere. You must have come across them, I know you have. Whether you’ve been talking to a friend, reading the paper or just using extravagant analogies, we’ve all come across comments comparing people to the sadistic Caligula, the evil Lucrezia Borgia, or the gluttonous Henry VIII.

Sometimes, we assume the legend is true. It’s usually not out of ignorance but, rather, because a story becomes part of popular culture or modern folklore. As the old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire and, in some instances of royal history, that’s quite accurate. In a few instances, however, the politics of an era, its social mores, and the power of folklore create an image which subsequent scholarly research shows to be quite untrue. Sometimes, all that’s needed is time to bring hidden documents to light. And sometimes, it was all a lot of rubbish to begin with, but the rumour caught fire anyway. Modern research has shown some of these rumours to be the result of some political, cultural, or social need; but it’s still too late, the legend has caught hold of the popular mind.Human nature is such that we revel – almost guiltily – in the titillating and salacious. How many of you have sometimes given a quick peek at a particularly juicy tabloid story? How many of you have occasionally grinned at the embarrassment of some popular actor whom you’ve thought was an over-rated, arrogant buffoon? I know I have.

Take that barely sublimated feel of vicarious superiority, combine it with an elemental appreciation of seeing the mighty fall, and perhaps you’ll see why certain myths take hold in the popular imagination. Go one step further and combine that natural, human response with today’s increasingly short attention span – and what do you get? A stewing pot of half-formed beliefs that have just enough truth to withstand a cursory, gossipy conversation but little else.

It’s the perfect laboratory for an urban legend, where a controversial fact becomes “true” simply by virtue of being repeated long enough. In short, people have just enough knowledge to get the wrong idea, and then they repeat that misconceptions to others who, in turn …..

Well, I think it’s time to discuss some of those commonly repeatedly rumours. Just because something has been repeated over the centuries as the gospel truth doesn’t mean that it is, in fact, true. By the same token, just because something has been repeated ad nauseaum doesn’t mean it’s false.

This week’s column will focus on a few of those popular myths from Lucrezia Borgia and Napoleon, to  the “Prince Albert” piercing, Anne Boleyn, Jack the Ripper and the royal prince, Richard III, and Hungary’s Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory. I’ll avoid some of the truly obvious ones, so that I may discuss some of the more controversial or popularly misunderstood urban legends. A few of the royals discussed below will be analysed in greater detail in subsequent columns but they still warrant inclusion on this list. If you have a special curiosity about someone on this list and would like to see their life explored in depth, please let me know. In the meantime, let’s get down to details.

In each of the following instances, I’ve tried to give a simple one line summation about the urban legend in question. Sometimes, the reference will be immediately obvious to one reader but it won’t be to another. So, I’ll be as basic as possible. Following the summation, I’ll explain the “Status” of the legend; in other words, if it’s true, false, in controversy or some variant in between. Then, I’ll give a brief historical explanation about the context surrounding the story and why it should be treated as true, false or up for debate.

 * * *

Legend: Prince Eddy, Queen Victoria’s grandson and second in line to the British throne, was “Jack the Ripper.

Status: False.

Explanation: Prince Albert Victor, the son of The Prince of Wales, was popularly known as “Prince Eddy.” He was named Duke of Clarence in 1891 and would probably have succeeded his father as King had he not died of the flu during the epidemic of 1891-1892. There were unconfirmed rumours that the Prince was slightly retarded but it’s safest to say that he was simply rather slow and not particularly bright.

Rumours concerning the Prince and “Jack the Ripper” had existed at the time of the investigation into the Whitechapel murders, but they really took off after 1970. That was when Dr. Thomas Stowell published an article in a criminal journal claiming to have solved the mystery. Stowell relied on papers left by Sir William Gull who was Queen Victoria’s physician. Sir William had apparently treated Prince Eddy for syphilis, a condition that slowly eats away at the brain. Dr. Stowell’s article never explicitly names the killer as Prince Eddy but, rather, calls him “S.” The person is easily recognizable as the Prince. Stowell’s theory is that the killer had syphilis, went mad and committed the murders. Stowell’s argument has been disproved on a number of different levels but so have all subsequent attempts to link Prince Eddy to “Jack the Ripper.”

Quite simply, the Prince had unbreakable alibis for many of the key dates. In fact, Eddy was not even in England on the day of two murders. Court circulars and royal records show that he was in Scotland, at a large house party where he was seen by hundreds of witnesses, shooting grouse with Prince Henry of Battenberg. He also had strong alibis on the dates of several other murders. Seehttp://www.casebook.org/suspects/eddy.html.

For those interested in the subject of Prince Eddy, the late, great historian and royal biographer, Theo Aronson, wrote an excellent discussion of his life and the “Jack the Ripper” legend in “Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld” (1995)(out-of-print but available used).

 * * *

Legend: The Queen Mother, consort to King George VI and mother to Queen Elizabeth II, used artificial insemination to conceive her children.

Status: Controversial, unresolved, but most probably false and highly unlikely.

Explanation:This legend has its roots in Kitty Kelley’s 1997 book, The Royals. Kelley quotes an “unnamed royal family friend” as her source for the claim that the Queen Mother resorted to “manual fertilization.” Since then, stories of “turkey basters” have become urban legend. It’s one which, in my opinion, is highly unlikely.

Although artificial insemination has existed, in some form or another, since the 1700s, it’s highly unlikely that a man as shy, reserved and private as King George VI would have agreed to the sorts of intrusions required for success. One may argue that kings have done a lot less for an heir, but this King truly lacked the sort of ruthless, brash personality for such actions.

Another strike against the book is that royal insiders were quite unwilling to assist Ms. Kelley with her research. And, arguably, it shows: a large numbers of reviews that found her allegations to be “unsubstantiated.” Ms. Kelley has repeatedly claimed she leaves no rock unturned in her research, but the shrill, extraordinarily nasty tone of the allegations in this book really leave one to wonder if she just had an axe to grind. The book is a compendium of every possible royal urban legend in existence, and the evidence for the claims flimsy beyond belief.

 * * *

Legend: Kitty Kelley’s book on the British Royal Family was banned in the UK

Status: False.

Explanation: Kitty Kelley’s book has never been published in the UK, leading many conspiracy theorists to allege that it was banned. The story has now risen to the level of urban legend but it is completely untrue. Britain’s tough libel laws differ greatly from those in the US and would certainly have led to a large verdict against Ms. Kelley and the publisher. As a result, neither was willing to take the risk of releasing the book in Britain. At no time did the Royal Family ban the book.

 * * *

Legend: Napoleon was poisoned to death

Status: Unresolved.

Explanation: The exiled Emperor died on the island of St. Helena in 1821 after a lingering decline and a final period of intense stomach pains. Rumours spread that the British had killed Napoleon to get rid of a thorn in their side and to end any political influence which he might still have. To counter these allegations, British military doctors on St. Helena performed an autopsy and found evidence of stomach cancer, which was given as the cause of his death.

In the 1960s, new tests found abnormally high levels of arsenic in his hair and suspicions were raised anew that the Emperor had been murdered. For the longest time, the two main suspects were the British or a close aide of Napoleon’s, the Comte de Montholon. According to some, the Comte murdered Napoleon under directions from the British. This theory was recently disproved by new tests on Napoleon’s hairs which suggested that he had been exposed to arsenic over a long period of time, as opposed to simply his brief exile on St. Helena. The results were interpreted as “clearing” the British. “British ‘cleared’ of Napoleon’s murder,” (October 29, 2002) at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2371187.stm

Be that as it may, questions still remain over the arsenic and why Napoleon’s hair showed such high levels. Some possibilities involve arsenic being used in 19th century hair restorer, to create certain colours for wallpaper, or in other innocuous products. Others continue to insist that Napoleon was murdered. One of these is the President of the International Napoleonic Society, Ben Weider, who strongly rejects the claim that Napoleon died of cancer. (For his analysis of the situation, see http://perso.club-internet.fr/ameliefr/E-Conference2.html)

Personally, I think there are plenty of innocuous reasons for the arsenic findings and do not believe Napoleon was murdered. Nonetheless, the matter is unresolved and open to debate.

 * * *

Legend: Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, had 6 fingers on one hand

Status: Unproven and almost certainly false.

Explanation:Folklore has always given Anne six fingers but there is no real evidence to support the claim. The rumour can be attributed to Henry VIII himself who repeatedly charged his wife with witchcraft when he’d tired of her and wanted to end the marriage. George Wyatt, grandson of Thomas Wyatt and one of Anne’s very few friendly biographers, stated she had a “double nail” on one of her fingers. http://tinyurl.com/5hm3n A misshapen nail is much more likely than a separate sixth finger, particularly as any deformation was seen in the Tudor era as a mark of disease or even God’s disfavor. It’s unlikely that Henry VIII would have wanted the mother of his children to be thus marred. http://fine-eyes.net/anneboleyn/myths.html In short, the myth should be discounted as false.

 * * *

Legend: Champagne glasses were created after being modeled on Marie-Antoinette’s breasts.

Status: False.

Explanation: There are various different versions of this story but the most familiar involves Marie-Antoinette who was said to have champagne glasses made out of molds of her breasts so courtiers could drink to her health from them. The second most prevalent story involves Madame du Pompadour. The mistress of King Louis XV supposedly had the saucer-shaped coupe glasses commissioned for her lover who supposedly greatly admired her breasts. In all cases, however, the story is false since the coupe was invented far before any of these ladies were born.http://www.snopes.com/business/origins/champagne.asp

* * *

Legend: Prince George, the Prince Regent and future King George IV, was a bigamist.

Status: True.

Explanation: Prince George, the eldest son of King George III, and known as “Prinny” was already married when he was forced into his ill-fated, unhappy marriage to Caroline of Brunswick. Legend has it that he fell in love at first sight with Maria Fitzherbert, a Catholic widow, whom he saw standing on the stairs of the Opera House in 1784. Whether it was love at first sight or not, one thing became clear: the Prince was deeply enamoured. He pursued her for quite a while but Mrs. Fitzherbert was an extremely religious woman and refused to become someone’s mistress, even if that “someone” was the future King of England.

The Prince was not used to being rejected or not getting his own way. To show Maria how serious he was, he attempted “suicide,” but he made sure he had a doctor on hand just in case. Prinny wanted to make a grand gesture and get his way, not to actually end his life, which he enjoyed far too much. Maria was terrified but she agreed to marry the Prince.

On December 15, 1785, the two were secretly married. The marriage was valid under canonical and ecclesiastical laws. However, it was illegal under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 which required the monarch’s consent before any member of the royal family could get married. Here, the King had never agreed and it would have been out of the question to ask him since he did not approve of Mrs. Fitzherbert.

There was another, equally important, reason why the Prince’s marriage was kept secret. Under the Act of Settlement of 1689, the Prince automatically forfeited his right of the succession by marrying a Roman Catholic.

The marriage was one of the worst kept secrets in society but the couple were so discreet that most people looked the other way, with the exception of older segments of high society and Beau Brummell, the Prince’s close friend and society’s arbiter. The couple spent most of their time in Brighton where Prinny was building and furnishing Brighton Pavilion. Mrs. Fitzherbert had a home in the Old Steine with a secret passageway into the Pavilion; she also had a home in London, close to the Prince. Both homes were purchased and furnished by the Prince. Never good with money in the first place, the Prince was racking up huge debts in this period, close to £1,000,000. It was a huge sum in those days, the equivalent to something like £80,000,000 today. http://www.eh.net/ehresources/howmuch/poundq.php

The Prince was running out of money and neither his father nor anyone else was willing to help him. The King, who was increasingly tired of his extravagant, scandalous son, finally agreed to pay the Prince’s debts if he got married. The King’s choice: his niece, Caroline of Brunswick. The King knew full well about the Prince’s secret marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert; who didn’t? However, as noted above, it was illegal under the terms of the Royal Marriages Act.

Prinny and Mrs. Fitzherbert separated briefly when he married Caroline in 1795. Since the Prince had never been officially married to Maria, he didn’t need to obtain a divorce. After his daughter was born, the Prince renewed his pursuit of Mrs. Fitzherbert. She, always the good Catholic, asked for the Pope’s guidance. In 1800, Pope Pius VII reaffirmed the validity of their marriage. Even Princess Caroline agreed; she considered Mrs. Fitzherbert “the Prince’s true wife.”

The couple got back together and stayed together for almost a decade. They separated permanently when the Regency was declared in 1811, and they remained apart even when Prinny became King in 1820. However, Maria was well-taken care of: she received a yearly stipend from the royal family until her death in 1837 at the age of 81, long after Prinny’s death in 1830. She was considered by many to be the King’s widow and his one real love. In fact, his dying wish was to be buried with a miniature of her face, a wish that was granted.

For a fun, richly anecdotal, but also well-balanced, biography of Prinny, you might want to try Saul David’s “Prince of Pleasure: The Prince of Wales and the Making of the Regency,” (1999). For a complex discussion of Maria and her marriage to the Prince, you can try James Munson, “Maria Fitzherbert: The Secret Wife of George IV” (2002).

 * * *

Legend: Lucrezia Borgia was murderess who engaged in incestuous affairs with her father and brother.

Status: False.

Explanation: Few woman have a reputation like Lucrezia Borgia. Over the centuries, she’s become a symbol of sexually depraved evil, a Mata Hari capable of murder and incest, who discarded husbands and lovers alike, or a cold blooded killer who doled out a fatal dose of poison from a cunning ring or necklace. Her very name is associated with poisonings and sex, but the truth is very far from the legend. Modern scholarship has shown Lucrezia to be a rather unfortunate young woman who was the victim of her mad brother’s sociopathy and her father’s ruthless ambition.

Lucrezia was born in 1480 into the mighty Borgia family. It had its roots in Spain but it really dominated the Italian political landscape. The family was headed by her father Rodrigo, the future Pope Alexander VI. Her mother was not married to Rodrigo but was merely one of his mistresses. She bore him four children, including Lucrezia’s infamous older brother, Cesare, and another brother, Juan. In 1492, Cardinal Rodrigo became Pope. The first whiff of scandal around the Borgias arose when the new Pope installed a young mistress in the palace next to St. Peters and visited her openly. It wouldn’t be the last scandal associated with the Borgias.

As for Lucrezia, she’d already been engaged to two Spanish nobles before the age of eleven. Her father had broken each engagement because he had higher aspirations, aspirations that were fulfilled when he got Lucrezia betrothed in 1493, at the age of thirteen. The candidate was Giovanni Sforza, an aristocrat whose family ruled Milan. It was not a happy marriage, even though the marital contract explicitly said that no consummation could take place for a year. Sforza was a weak man who tried to play political games against the Borgias, and lost. Rodrigo Borgia was not someone you wanted as an enemy, so Sforza fled Rome fearing for his life.

In 1497, the Pope filed divorce papers on Lucrezia’s behalf, and that’s when the problems began. Sforza was pressed to sign the divorce papers, specifically one attesting to non-consummation of the marriage by reason of his impotence. Sforza was well-known to have fathered several illegitimate children and the allegation about his virility infuriated him. He retaliated with the claim that the Pope wanted the divorce because he wanted his lovely daughter all to himself.

The accusation stuck, then and throughout history. The Borgias were feared and hated in Rome, and more than one powerful noble was eager to believe that the Pope was having incestuous relations with his daughter who was 18 by then. Eventually, the charge came to encompass not only the Pope but also Lucrezia’s brothers, Cesare and Juan.

One of the reasons was the political atmosphere of the times. The Borgias were seen as a corrupt family, but people were unwilling to target them openly due to Cesare’s hotheaded, murderous nature or her father’s vindictiveness and might. Lucrezia was an easier target for rumours. She was also a young, beautiful, blonde woman, so people took delicious glee at the thought that she might be having sex with her father. Over time, the rumours were taken as the gospel truth.

Another reason for the rumours is that the Borgias were an unusually close family, something which wasn’t easily understood at the time. It certainly bewildered Sforza who found the Borgias’ ostentatious display of closeness to be incomprehensible. Michael Mallet, The Borgias: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Family (1987). Lucrezia’s brothers may have been divided by rivalry and jealousy, but they both loved her very deeply. So did her father, although not in an incestuous way. Lucrezia, in turn, seems to have been driven by a deep compulsion to please her family in all matters, no matter what she felt inside or how questionable their activities. Thus, when Cesare insisted on including Lucrezia in some of his vicious “sports” — such as shooting unarmed criminals from the balcony of the Vatican with a cross-bow — Lucrezia sighed and followed his “request.”

Cesare hurt her reputation in other ways too. When her lover, a young Spaniard, was found murdered, it was universally assumed that Cesare had done it a fit of incestuous jealousy. When Lucrezia’s other brother, Juan Borgia, was murdered and his body fished out of the river, no-one suspected Cesare (although he was indeed the killer) but people whispered that Lucrezia was inhumanly cold and unaffected.

In reality, she’d been devastated by the news and it ended her one attempt at extricating herself from her family’s web. Lucrezia had fled to a convent soon after her father had filed the Sforza divorce papers. She allegedly wanted to take the cloth and become a nun. She was so determined that she refused to leave no matter how much her father blustered. Her beloved brother’s death ended all that. Lucrezia quietly returned to the Borgia fold and resigned herself to her fate. Before the ink on the divorce papers was dry, she’d been married off again. This time, her husband was the Duke of Biseglie, a member of the Neapolitan ruling family. Their marriage was a happy one until the Duke’s family fell from power. Then, Cesare murdered him too.

Cesare died at the age of 30, far before his sister, but the damage to her reputation had already been done. He, more than any one else, was the cause of her legend as a vicious murderess. The reality is that Lucrezia was neither a monster, nor a vacuous blonde but a woman with limited options in her time. She tried her best to resist her family’s machinations but she simply lacked the power to do so.

As one commentator put it, a “study of Lucrezia’s life in view of her popular image makes the peril of taking ‘popular knowledge’ as fact extraordinarily clear. Lucrezia Borgia was a woman who has been shamefully and undeservedly maligned for centuries and whose few champions have been only very moderately successful in setting the record straight. It is, indeed, a cruel irony that this woman, who was the least awful of her clan, has received a reputation as being among its worst.” Marguerite Wolf, http://www.dragonrest.net/histories/lucrezia.html

For a truly stellar analysis of Lucrezia, her fascinating life and family, and her very different later years, I suggest Sarah Bradford’s “Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy” (2004)

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Legend: “The Blood Countess,” Erzsébet (or Elizabeth) Bathory, took baths in the blood of virgins in order to keep her youth and beauty.

Status: False, although many of the Countess’ other infamous deeds are true.

Explanation: Erzsébet (or Elizabeth) Bathory was a Hungarian countess, who was born around 1561 into one of the richest, most powerful Protestant noble families in Mittel Europa or Middle Europe. Her maternal uncle was the King of Poland, Stephan Bathory (1533-1585). Some of her cousins were Princes of Transylvania and one of them even made a grand marriage into the Habsburg Imperial family. Her other relatives included a cardinal and the Prime Minister of Hungary.

Madness supposedly passed through the Bathory veins. Many of her relatives had a dark side: one uncle was supposedly addicted to rituals and worship in honor of Satan; her aunt Klara was a well-known bi-sexual and lesbian who enjoyed witchcraft and torturing servants; and Elizabeth’s brother, Stephan, was an infamous lecher and drunkard around whom no female woman or child was safe. Elizabeth’s uncle, King Stephen, was no exception to the list because his savagery in battle has often been cited as evidence of the family’s derangement.

Elizabeth was reportedly stunning beyond belief, one of the most beautiful women of the era, with legendary paleness, jet black hair and rather “mad eyes.” She was married to a Hungarian noble, Count Ferencz Nasdasdy, at the age of 15. The Count was frequently away on military campaigns against the Turks, leaving Elizabeth alone in castle on a lonely mountaintop in the Carpathians. She soon got bored and tried to devise ways in which to keep herself entertained.

She found it in torture. Numerous historic reports showed that Elizabeth had a veritable passion for torture, which was directed at both her servants and at peasants within her fiefdom. Elizabeth began with the servants, punishing them mercilessly for the slightest infraction, actual or imagined. It was historically common for aristocrats to brutally beat their servants, even to the point of death but Elizabeth took it much further than an occasional disciplinary matter. On some occasions, she whipped the servants until they bled to death; on others, she would put a naked servant girl outside, covered in honey, for the animals and insects to devour. She sewed up the mouth of a girl that talked too much, while burning the genitalia of others. By some accounts, she even invented the horrific torture device, the Iron Maiden. She also developed the “art” of freezing a girl to death during the winter by pouring water over her naked body until it hardened and she was unable to move. And when Elizabeth was merely in a bad mood, she used branding irons, razors, pincers and torches.

When the Count died in 1604, Elizabeth got even worse. It is at this point that the legend takes on overtones of the vampire stories. According to legend, one day, a servant girl accidentally pulled too hard when brushing the Countess’ hair and Elizabeth slapped her so hard that she drew blood. The blood fell on her own hand, instantly transforming it into the freshness of youth. Elizabeth, vain and proud about her legendary beauty, was convinced she’d found the secret of youth. She ordered her servants to cut up the young maid and drain her blood into a big vat. Elizabeth bathed in it to keep her entire body young and continued to kill young peasants for years thereafter in order to keep her beauty.

That’s the legend but is it true? There is little evidence for the claims, some of which may have arisen out of political conflicts of the time pitting various powerful families against each other, as well as Protestant versus Catholic.

A more likely explanation of the legend is that Elizabeth was covered in blood from her love of torturing victims. Her personal log put the number of her victims as high as 650 but there are questions about that document. A few recent historians have argued that Elizabeth’s victims probably numbered two or three hundred but nothing as high as 650. Whatever the case, reports of Elizabeth being virtually covered in blood probably stemmed from the viciousness of her torture methods, not from any wish to bathe in blood itself.

Since her death, her legend has grown. In fact, it’s often hard to separate fact from fiction. A review of modern scholarship leads me to believe that Elizabeth never drank blood or bathed in it. Some extremely well-respected historians have argued that the allegations against her must be seen in the political landscape of the time and that her “legend” was embellished for political reasons. One theory which has been brought forward stems from her status as a rich widow who was a prey for powerful men. The theory alleges that Elizabeth’s political machinations could have resulted in the confiscation of her properties by the Emperor. Her relatives, which included Count Thorzo who eventually brought her to justice, preferred to keep her rich inheritance for themselves.

I’m a firm believer that events must be read in the political context of the times, so I find the latter theory not wholly implausible. The “political context” theory has gone a long way towards explaining away some of the things in the Dracula legend. Vlad the Impaler, the Prince upon whom the legend is based, has been the subject of more than a few historical embellishments. If any thing, it was Elizabeth Bathory who was the real inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel, not Vlad.

Still, there is only so far one can go with the “political context” theory, at least when it comes to the Countess who truly was a monster beyond belief. She may not have taken “baths in the blood of virgins” or drank their blood, but her other actions gave ample credence to the subsequent legends. For one thing, it is undisputed that Elizabeth killed hundred of people, making her one of the biggest serial killers in all of history. For another, Elizabeth did, indeed, rip out pieces of her victim’s flesh with her teeth. Not to eat it, necessarily, but simply as part of her peculiar sociopathy and madness. Equally true is the fact that she tortured people to such a point that she was frequently covered in blood, hence the legend that she “bathed in blood.” Lastly, there is no doubt whatsoever that Elizabeth took the brutal disciplinary tactics of the age to new, sadomasochistic levels and thoroughly reveled in each new, heinous method of inflicting pain.

Sources: Valentine Penrose’s “Erzsébet Báthory, La Comtesse Sanglante,” translated in English as The Bloody Countess: The Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory (1996)(my note: very detailed, researched account but not recommended, because of a genuinely peculiar style of writing which overwhelms the facts and is far from the professional approach by most normal historians. The author’s style seems to be an attempt to recreate a surrealist, artistic text. Only the very patient can get passed the style to the historical fact underneath); Tony Thorne, Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess (1998)(my note: an excellent account of the Countess’s life which attempts to place it in a historical context and which does not quickly accept some of the myths surrounding her); Raymond T. McNally, Dracula Was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania(1987)(my note: although Mr. McNally is the foremost expert in this area, his book should not be considered for anything other than the most basic facts about Elizabeth Bathory’s life. Some of his allegations have been proven to be dubious because he simply goes too far. On the other hand, the book he co-authored with Radu R. Florescu on Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and his Times (1990) is truly excellent. It places the Prince in a historical context and debunks many of the legends, which have arisen around him.) Also consulted: The True Crime Library, at www.crimelibrary.com; The Mad Monarchs site, at http://tinyurl.com/62jud.

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Legend: The “Prince Albert” genital piercing and ring was named after Queen Victoria’s husband.

Status: Unproven.

Explanation: The “Prince Albert” is a form of male, genital piercing in which a metal ring is placed through the foreskin and into the urethra. The practice has become associated with Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, who allegedly wore a ring attached to his penis which was then strapped to his thigh. The reason usually given is the clothing styles of the day. The strapping prevented any unseemly bulges, while keeping the smooth line of the tight trousers that were fashionable at the time.

There are no contemporary accounts of the Prince having such a “dressing ring” but that is not surprising. The Victorians – particularly the royal couple – were famed for their prudishness. In public, at least. After all, this was a society that insisted on table legs being covered up lest people get improperly aroused. Furthermore, after Victoria’s death, her daughter ripped out and destroyed large portions of Victoria’s diaries out of fear that something “untoward” and improper would be revealed. The same mindset would definitely have applied to such intimate practices as genital piercing. In short, it’s not utterly impossible that Prince Albert had a “dressing ring” but it hasn’t been proven either.

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Legend: Richard III killed the two princes in the tower

Status: Controversial, unproven and still the subject of much debate.

Explanation: Richard III had been vilified by historians and Shakespeare alike. One of the “crimes” for which he has received the greatest infamy was the death of his two, young nephews. The young princes were Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York, sons of King Edward IV and his Queen, Elizabeth Woodville.

Their uncle, Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III, came after them in the line of succession. Richard III dealt with that problem through an act of parliament which declared the two princes illegitimate. Although the parliamentary decree might seem unjustified, there were a few questions about their parents’ marriage and, specifically, whether a precontract to another woman would have rendered it invalid. Nonetheless, “bastardy” was not an automatic bar to succession; it could be remedied by law, and bastards had a history of inheriting lands and titles. In short, the young princes arguably had an unqualified right of succession to the British throne, a right that was much stronger than their uncle.

Richard was undeterred. The parliamentary decree had “officially” resolved the princes’ role in the succession and paved the way for his own rule. In 1483, he placed the young princes in the Tower of London, which was, at the time, a palace as well as a prison. Eventually, the princes just disappeared from sight.

Their fate is unknown. It’s been speculated that they died at a young age, that they escaped and lived their lives abroad, or that Richard simply had them killed. The English author, Sir Thomas More, wrote that they’d been murdered and buried at the foot of a staircase in the White Tower. In 1674, the skeletal remains of two small bodies were found at the bottom of a staircase in the Tower of London. The bones seemed to date to the late 15th century. They are the best evidence for the claim that the princes were murdered, as opposed to the other possibilities put forward to explain their disappearance.

History has placed the blame for the young princes’ death on Richard III but is it justified? Some historians (and Shakespeare himself) have argued that Richard killed the young princes. The theory is that Richard III had an insecure grasp on the monarchy and that the Princes were a threat to Richard so long as they were alive.

However, there is another equally plausible candidate for the role of villain. Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, who became King Henry VII and the father of Henry VIII. Henry Tudor succeeded to the throne in 1485, after defeating Richard in the Battle of Bosworth. Henry’s right to the throne was arguably shakier than Richard’s because it derived from right of conquest on the battlefield. Furthermore, he was a ruthless man who hadn’t hesitated to kill other potential rivals for the throne. Why not two little boys who had been hidden away over the preceding two years and who had the strongest claim of all?

Finally, Henry VII did not hesitate to use the young princes’ family to legitimize his claim. He married their sister, Elizabeth of York, to add the patina of a blood right. However, Elizabeth’s right to inherit the throne depending on both her brothers being dead. As a result, Henry ordered one of his nobles act on his behalf and kill the young princes soon after he ascended the throne.

Or so the theory goes. In reality, there is no proof of Henry’s guilt; any more than there is of Richard’s. We probably will never know what happened to the young princes, or who killed them.

Nonetheless, people should be cautioned at accepting the popular historical image of Richard III. Shakespeare’s play went out of its way to demonize the late King and the mud has stuck to this day. Yet, both the play and some contemporary accounts need to be placed in the context of the times. Shakespeare wrote the play around 1591, less than a decade after the Tudors had come to power, when the wounds of the longstanding “War of the Roses” were still fresh. Furthermore, Shakespeare depended on royal patronage for his livelihood; it would not have been politically wise to write something showing Richard III in a positive or well-balanced light. In short, both his play and the commentary of other contemporary writers need to be taken with a grain of salt.

That’s not to say that Richard was a saint. Far from it. However, history is rarely black or white, particularly at the highest levels of power. Richard III did many terrible things but killing the two princes in the tower may not be one of them.

Sources: Michael Hicks, Richard III (2003)(an excellent, balanced portrait that strips away the propaganda by both Richard III’s apologists and his detractors); Alison Weir, The Princes in the Tower (1995)(makes a strong case that Richard III was guilty of the young princes’ death but isn’t very willing to consider other theories or suspects.)

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