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Medieval gay royal scandals, buddhist David Hume, and a really boring Queen: a roundup of history articles online this week.

Three of the best history-themed articles I’ve read this week.  Scandal, drama, buddhism in 18th century Europe, and boring vanilla queens.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.



From historytoday.com: 

For nearly 700 years people have been debating whether a) Edward II was gay, and b) if he was in a romantic relationship with his favorite courtier, Piers Gaveston.  That’s a pretty serious level of debate over a sovereign’s sexuality, especially at a time when homosexuality wasn’t as rare as we might think.

No matter which way you cut it, Edward II was a pretty lousy monarch.  There are some historians out there, notably Kathryn Warner, who are banging the pro-Edward drum lately, and they make some fair points.  His wife, Isabella of France led a rebellion against him, in partnership with her lover Roger Mortimer (as well as other nobles).  He was imprisoned, and either killed or not killed (there is some debate), but either way, he was out of the picture while Isabella and Mortimer ruled in the name of Edward III (who himself would have to rebel to take control of the government from his mother and Mortimer once he was old enough).

It all makes for a ton of drama, and much of it stems from the debate about whether Edward II and Piers Gaveston had an illicit affair going on.  Some historians have explained away the crazy attention and amount of time that Edward and Piers spent together saying it was a brotherhood of knights.  But the fact remains that Edward paid so little attention to his wife Isabella on their wedding day in favor of partying with Piers, that foreign dignitaries were embarrassed.  When he was feeling threatened with rebellion, he ran away with Piers leaving his 5-months pregnant wife to figure out her situation on her own.

To use a phrase from Seinfeld – there isn’t “anything wrong with” whether he was or was not homosexual.  He and Piers can have whatever kind of relationship they want to have, as long as the government is still running effectively.  In the essay on HistoryToday by J.S. Hamilton, we get a pretty clear picture that not only were Edward and Piers more than good friends, but Edward continuously put the needs of Piers above those of his wife, the nobles, and the country.



From The Atlantic

In the October issue of the Atlantic, Alison Gopnick (whose book, The Philosophical Baby is a must-read for any parent!) writes beautifully about how researching David Hume helped pull her out of a midlife crisis.  Ten years ago, in 2005, she was turning 50, her children were all away at university, and she left her marriage, then had a love affair with a woman, which ended badly.

Her research had always been around children and their brain development, and she couldn’t bring herself to think about children, or any kind of family life.  Instead, she sought solace from David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher whose thinking had a huge impact on the development of the Enlightenment and scientific thought.  One of his core beliefs is that there is no I – whereas Descartes believed that the I must exist in order to be thinking anything (I think therefore I am) Hume argued that any thought of the I is a construct we’ve invented.  This can be incredibly freeing – if there is no set in stone, the can be whatever we desire it to be.  We are, truly, inventing ourselves every time we think about ourselves…

Still, as I read, I kept finding parallels. The Buddha doubted the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God. In his doctrine of “emptiness,” he suggested that we have no real evidence for the existence of the outside world. He said that our sense of self is an illusion, too. The Buddhist sage Nagasena elaborated on this idea. The self, he said, is like a chariot. A chariot has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of wheels and frame and handle. Similarly, the self has no transcendent essence; it’s just a collection of perceptions and emotions.

“I never can catch myself at any time without a perception.”

That sure sounded like Buddhist philosophy to me—except, of course, that Hume couldn’t have known anything about Buddhist philosophy.

Or could he have?


As she delved more deeply into her Hume passion, Gopnick made an interesting discovery.  There was at least one other person in Europe in the 1730’s who had been familiar with Buddhism – a Jesuit missionary named Ippolito Desideri who had been a missionary in Tibet, and became an expert on Buddhist philosophy in order to fully understand how to convert the locals.  He had been recalled back to Italy because of politics, and on his way back he spent time in a French Jesuit college.  Where, incidentally, eight years later, David Hume would arrive for some quiet time to work on his own philosophies.

The article goes through her research into connecting the dots, finding missing links, and along the way, figuring out who she was, stripped of her former identity.


From HistoryExtra.com (BBC History Magazine)
(when I just clicked that link, it was no longer working, and the search of the website shows that the page seems to be down…so in the interim, here’s the link to my clipping in evernote)

Elizabeth of York is often overlooked by biographers.  The female half in the founding of the Tudor Dynasty, she wasn’t nearly as exciting as her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, or her daughters-in-law (all six of them).  But the fact that she is so little discussed could be a testament to her success.

The daughter of Edward IV, the sister of the Princes in the Tower, her marriage to Henry Tudor was arranged through her mother, and Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, in order to bring together the houses of York and Lancaster and create peace after the decades-long Wars of the Roses.

Elizabeth could have claimed her own right to the throne, next in line after her brothers, who were presumed dead.  But instead, she submitted to the wishes of her mother, and threw her lot in with Henry, who was from a family that she had grown up hating.  Richard III himself had flirted with the idea of marrying her, such was the strength of her claim.  But she was promised to Henry, and when Henry killed Richard at Bosworth Field, she went through with the marriage.

Apparently Henry and Elizabeth did fall in a sort of love with each other, and when their oldest son Arthur died there is a touching story of how they comforted each other.  When the news was first broken to Henry VII, he broke down and she came to console him, keeping it together for as long as it took to leave the room and get back to her own chambers where she broke down.  Then Henry had to come and be the strong one for her.  It’s a very touching story of how the monarchs found love in a tragedy.  

Elizabeth also was a very hands on mother.  David Starkey has studied the handwriting of Elizabeth and her children, and has concluded that it was Elizabeth, rather than any other tutor, who was the teacher of Henry VIII, and her other children.  Henry himself wrote about how close he had been to his mother.  This was highly unusual in royal households where children were commonly sent away to be raised in their own households.  Perhaps Elizabeth, having had her own family torn apart, wanted to keep her children close.  And Henry, raised by his uncle in exile in Flanders, not seeing his mother for more than a decade, would have probably supported this decision to keep family close by.

But Elizabeth still had some political fallout that she had to deal with.  Because the bodies of the Princes were never found, there were constant pretenders claiming to be one of them.  The biggest threat came from Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be the Duke of York (the younger Prince) and who was supported by many of the European monarchs who had beef with the Tudors.  He arrived in England and convinced many nobles, and even people who would have known the Princes over a decade before.

Elizabeth was loyal to her husband, but we don’t know what she would have been thinking during this time.  Had her brother really come back?  If she had supported Warbeck, it may have thrown England back into a period of civil unrest.

It was through her loyalty and support of Henry VII, and bearing him children whose lives she was an active presence, that Elizabeth had the most profound effect on the rise of the Tudor dynasty.  That’s every bit as important as the battles, and for that reason, even though she’s not as dramatic as the Queens on either generation, she still deserves to be remembered as a successful and integral founder of the Tudors.