Women in history – scandal and myth!

Not crushed to death by a horse

Women have had a tough time breaking through in history. Up against societies where men were told they ruled the roots – women had had to exercise power against all odds. Sometimes behind the scenes and other times up front.

But when women have managed to get to the top in history – they’ve been demonised or subjected to myth making and invented scandals. In short, women in history have been the subject of fake news. And the image we have of many famous female historical figures is entirely from the poison pens of male historians of the time.

WOMEN IN HISTORY: Catherine the Great

Oh, you must have heard how Catherine the Great of Russia died. The horse. The harness that broke. How it fell on top of her. What she was trying to do at the time with the horse.

I’ve heard that tale for decades going back to university. The myth that one of Russia’s most powerful historical rulers was killed when she attempted to have equine intercourse. The story, folks, is total bunkum – nonsense – 100% tripe.

But myths like this about great women persist. If anything, with social media they are reviving and spreading more than ever. This maliciously amusing lie about Catherine the Great is believed to have originated in France among catty royal courtiers who wanted to mock Russia’s ambition to be a world power. How better to do that than denigrate the late female tsar.

WOMEN IN HISTORY: The Empress Livia – wife of Augustus

Women in history have always been the subject of the most resilient myths. Ambitious, clever females have been systematically rubbished by male chroniclers. The Roman Empire is a good example. Take the wife of the first emperor Augustus. Livia was the mother of the people and brainy consort of her husband the emperor. But she was also cast as a serial poisoner.

The historian Tacitus accused her of framing and being complicit in the murder of some of her rivals. The very bitchy Roman writer Suetonius echoed these claims.

And then Cassius Dio, a very respected Roman source, went as far as to claim that she ended up murdering Augustus by smearing poison on figs she knew he would eat. These accusations were all repeated in the 20th century novel I, Claudius by Robert Graves, later made into an excellent BBC TV drama in the 1970s.

Why would Livia have poisoned as many people as these historians claimed? Because it’s alleged she was clearing a path for her son Tiberius to become the second emperor. There is no evidence whatsoever to support an association between Livia and about twenty deaths attributed to her. Yet, the crimes have stuck like glue damaging her reputation down the centuries.

WOMEN IN HISTORY: Roman female politicians

Roman women clearly exercised very real power and got trashed for doing so. The mother of Nero, Agrippina the Younger, was accused of poisoning her husband the emperor Claudius (who was also her uncle).

And then there’s the wife of Mark Antony – not Cleopatra, but a lesser known woman called Fulvia. She was hated by the great Roman orator Cicero who spoke out against her on several occasions. One unsubstantiated account has her receiving his head after he was executed for treason and piercing his tongue with her gold hairpins.

WOMEN IN HISTORY: Lucrezia Borgia

Fast forward to Italy during the Renaissance and we have the scandalous history of Lucrezia Borgia. The first shocking fact – true as it happens – is that she was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Yes, you read that correctly. The pope had a daughter. And other children. Pope Alexander indeed freely admitted to having fathered several kids from his mistresses.

His reputation has been undermined as a result with his family, the Borgias, painted as corrupt and libertine. But at the time, Pope Alexander was deemed to have been one of the most cultured and successful popes in history.

One of his children, Cesare Borgia, was an ambitious statesman who was the inspiration for Machiavelli’s book The Prince. While Lucrezia was also a very talented political operator but she was cast as …. yet another serial poisoner.

Women who murdered were normally expected to use poison. The idea being that they were too physically weak to resort to something more physical. And drugging also revealed underhand feminine guile and cunning. So, the gossip went, Lucrezia concealed poison in her ring that she slipped into her victims’ drinks.

The stories about the Borgias holding orgies and having incest spread from two very hostile sources. One was the growing Protestant faith, which viewed the early 16th century Vatican as a corrupt Babylon of vice and depravity. The other source was the radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola who accused Pope Alexander of being in league with the devil. His repeated denunciations of the papacy led to him being burned to death in 1498.

WOMEN IN HISTORY: Anne Boleyn

I’ll finish with Anne Boleyn – the second wife of Henry VIII – beheaded when she was unable to bear her king a son. Anne was ambitious but no more so than any other woman of her rank.

She was just better and brighter when it came to getting what she wanted. In the end, she paid with her head with charges trumped up against her that were clearly over the top. Incest with her brother being one calumny thrown at her.

And in addition, Catholic propagandists – who disliked the Protestant Anne – spread the entirely false rumour that she had a sixth finger on her right hand. Obviously a sign of being a witch! Anne’s remains were exhumed in the 19th century and there was no sign of an extra digit!

No sign of a sixth finger on her right hand

As you can see, being a woman in history has been tough – let’s hope it’s getting easier from here on in!

Napoleon and Hitler – Private Lives

In 2019, I appeared in every episode of Private Lives broadcast on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world such as the Smithsonian. Historical subjects included Napoleon and Hitler.

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Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I covered the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:

  • Princess Margaret – the late sister of the present Queen Elizabeth II. Margaret never stuck to the rules and caused constant scandal during her life. She’s featured in the Netflix series The Crown
  • Edward VIII – the king of England who gave up his throne to marry an American commoner and divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British Empire was rocked by Edward’s decision but what really lay behind it?
  • Napoleon – the diminutive French emperor who conquered most of Europe but was destroyed in his attempt to take Russia. His passionate affairs, tempestuous marriage and crushing defeat by the English exposed
  • Hitler – you’d think there was nothing left to say about Hitler but we delve into his fascination for teenage girls, frustrated artistic ambitions and the corrupt ambition that brought him down
  • Al Capone – the gangster known as Scarface terrorised Chicago but also had a great many admirers. The establishment seemed powerless to act as this street punk made vast profits from racketeering but eventually they got him on tax evasion
  • Peter the Great – the mightiest tsar that ever ruled Russia. A very odd character who loved dwarves, heavy drinking and women. His parties were notorious. His cruelty, even to close family, was highly disturbing.

Happy viewing – and hope you learn more about Napoleon and Hitler!!

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Great Plague of London in 1665

London was hit by the Great Plague in 1665 but in fact it was one of a succession of pestilences that overtook the English capital. In the years 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636, there were plagues with similarly devastating consequences.

The 1625 plague saw thousands of red crosses painted on the doors of the infected. These victims couldn’t leave and nobody was permitted to enter. This was quarantine seventeenth century style. And according to one pamphlet of the time – the plague crosses struck terror into the population:

Foure thousand Red-Crosses have frighted the Inhabitants in a very little time, but greater is their number who have beene frighted and fled out of the City at the setting up of those Crosses

England’s Lord Have Mercy Upon Us – Thomas Dekker

The 1665 has come down to us very vividly for two key reasons. One was that the journalist and author Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful and gripping account of it a few years later. And the other is that the 1665 Great Plague was followed a year later in 1666 by the Great Fire – which destroyed a large part of London.

What amazed people at the time was that London’s population continued to grow rapidly despite the terrible plagues. This was due to a steady influx of people from the countryside into the city and also – as with Coronavirus – the ability of the wealthier to avoid the worst of the plague.

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Basically, richer families continued to expand and reproduce while poorer families bore the main brunt of each wave of plague. Some saw this rather cruelly as a natural order of things.

The 1665 plague happened in the years following the end of the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration of King Charles II. We’re often led to believe that these were years of jolly revelry and colour. But in fact more most Londoners this was a period of plague, fire, poverty and war.

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history.

This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!