I recently came across a Saxon infant saint called Rumwold of Buckingham who only lived for three days. But before this poor baby died, he was able to display what can only be described as magical powers. Rumwold asked to be baptised and immediately after, preached a sermon on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
Apparently, the very precocious baby was able to reference heavy theological sources such as the Athanasian Creed. Not bad for somebody who hadn’t been alive for a week yet. The sermon concluded with Rumwold predicting his own death and outlining the funeral arrangements. His short life took place in the village of King’s Sutton in what is now the English county of Northamptonshire. And the chatty baby was the scion of a noble Saxon family with both pagan and Christian relatives. He died in the year 662.
There are plenty of infant saints aside from Rumwold but one that I find morbidly fascinating is Sicarius of Bethlehem. This infant saint was one of the Holy Innocents killed by King Herod, as recounted in the Nativity story. Now – I hear you ask – how could any of the Holy Innocents have died a Christian when Christ himself had only just been born? Put another way – there was no Christianity when Herod gave his notorious order so how does a baby at that time become a Christian saint?
Well, details, details. None of these inconvenient points stopped early medieval France getting very enthusiastic about his cult. From the time of Charlemagne, Sicarius was worshipped fervently and his remains were kept at an abbey in the Dordogne. How were they discovered? You ask too many questions!
Though not a saint, Ellen Organ (1903-1908) was an Irish child whose apparent holiness was so overwhelming that Pope Pius X lowered the age for first Holy Communion from 12 to 7 years of age. “Little Nellie of Holy God” was another infant who rather implausibly was able to recite big chunks of scripture despite being obviously very young. The sickly child died of a variety of dreadful diseases from TB to whooping cough.
She was exhumed by the nuns looking after her a year following death and – of course – showed no signs of corruption. In 2015, there was some controversy over a call from a local bishop to exhume her yet again and move the body to a place where she could be venerated more easily by the faithful.
In the summer of 2019, I visited Fatima in Portugal. This was the place where, in the year 1917, three peasant children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. One of many apparitions over the centuries that have turned innocuous places into globally revered pilgrimage sites. Millions still make a beeline to Fatima, Lourdes and Guadalupe in the hope of getting closer to God or finding a cure for a disease.
Marian apparitions have always tended to dominate – that’s the Virgin Mary paying a visit to planet Earth. And her visitations have often coincided with a tough period for the church where its popularity was waning or it was under attack. Nothing like an apparition to galvanise the faithful!
It’s also a way in which the Roman Catholic church cements its position among new converts. So at Guadalupe, it was an Aztec convert who saw the Virgin Mary. His name was Juan Diego (or assumed name after baptism) and the V.M. obligingly left an imprint of herself on his cloak. This convinced an initially sceptical church that he had indeed experienced the Marian apparition. As I saw for myself in 2014, Guadalupe is still a hugely popular pilgrimage site.
The church has often been ambivalent about apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, apostles and saints. I suspect one of the reasons is the Catholic church’s desire for ultimate control. Apparitions are a moment when the faithful have the whip hand. It also begs the questions why the V.M. would choose a lay person instead of a priest of bishop to relay important heavenly messages. But the church tends to embrace the apparition once further proof is offered. Not that this proof would satisfy a scientific test of course.
Below are scenes from Fatima that I filmed on my smartphone in 2019. In front of the basilica is an airport size piazza, like a gigantic runway. And along its length, pilgrims move on their knees. You can see similar scenes at Lourdes in France and Knock in Ireland.
Whether this self-abasement actually has a positive effect has been a discussion point among psychologists and doctors for years. It would be fascinating to know what impact it has on death-related anxiety and depression. One report I read recently expressed concern about the sharp rise in the number of over-60s going on pilgrimage to places like Santiago de Compostela in Spain – where you have to do a very long walk to get there. Far from curing those involved, the whole experience exacerbated cardiac conditions among some elderly people.
Since the first feature films were made by Hollywood in the early 20th century – they have been peddling conspiracy theories. All social media has done is amplify this stuff to an unparalleled degree. Whether it’s faked moon landings or clones of Hitler being created in Latin America – there’s a movie for every conspiracy theory you can imagine!
How about the moon landings never happened? Ever since Neil Armstrong made a giant leap for mankind by stepping to the surface of the moon – there’s been endless speculation that it never happened. One conspiracy theory is that fake filmed footage to fool the public was overseen by Stanley Kubrick who had just directed 2001: A Space Odyssey which included scenes on the moon.
In 1978, James Brolin and O. J. Simpson played astronauts in the conspiracy theory movie Capricorn One. The plot involves a manned mission to Mars that goes wrong due to technical faults with the space module. To avoid embarrassment, the government creates a Mars-like environment in a studio and the astronauts pretend to have landed on the red planet. But in order to keep things totally secret, the astronauts have to be killed. This played to lingering widespread suspicions that nobody had ever been to the moon.
Since the end of the Second World War, there’s been a great deal of speculation about how many of Hitler’s top Nazis secretly fled Germany to Latin America. Was the Vatican involved? Did fascist and military dictators in Latin American countries shelter some of the most evil people in the 20th century? The 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil certainly thought so.
This has to be one of the most absurd conspiracy theory plots ever concocted. Veteran Hollywood actor Gregory Peck (who must have needed the money) plays Dr Josef Mengele, a real-life Nazi doctor who conducted unspeakable experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The movie had him in Brazil decades later developing Hitler clones. The intention was that these little boys would grow up to be Fuhrers and take over the world.
The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 has been blamed on the CIA, the mafia and of course Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1991, director Oliver Stone brought us JFK – a conspiracy theory laden feast of conjecture and inference. Most controversially, it pointed an accusing finger at Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s immediate successor as President of the United States. Stone came in for a mountain of criticism but the movie was a box office smash.
In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate gave us the story of a US President secretly in the grip of the Soviet Union. The champion of the free world was actually a Communist agent. I know what some of you are thinking – replace the Soviet Union with Russia and we have a Manchurian Candidate in the White House today! In 2004, the film was remade with a president under the control of a multinational corporation. Time for another update then?
Forward to 1990 and we have the release of Godfather III – the third of the Godfather gangster trilogy directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It’s arguably the weakest of the three films. The conspiracy theory plot features the murder of a recently elected pope and financial skullduggery within the Vatican. These are heavy references to the real-life scandal at the Vatican controlled Banco Ambrosiano at the end of the 1970s and the sudden death of Pope John Paul I only a month after his election in 1978.
The theme of a murdered pope continues with Angels and Demons – a movie based on the novel by Dan Brown.
Are there any movies you’ve enjoyed that promote crazy or feasible conspiracy theories?
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, Claudiusby 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!
As you can see, being a woman in history has been tough – let’s hope it’s getting easier from here on in!