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!

Why Henry VIII had no friends

At the end of his life, the bloated and vindictive Henry VIII found himself without any friends. But you can hardly be surprised when he’d executed so many of them!

Even showering admiration and homage on this volatile monarch was no guarantee that your head would remain attached to your shoulders. Let’s look at friends that Henry VIII had judicially murdered:

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Cardinal Wolsey

Wolsey was an adviser inherited by the young Henry VIII from his father. He was a top diplomat and by that, I mean his ability to scheme and spin had no equal. Henry had in Wolsey a Chancellor respected all over Europe and elevated to cardinal by Pope Leo X.

The high point for Wolsey was organising the opulent meeting between the King of France and Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. But in the years that followed, he struggled with the king’s strong desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled by the pope.

She had not borne him a son. And the Tudor dynasty had come to power as a result of a very bloody war between factions of the English aristocracy called the War of the Roses. Henry needed to cement the legitimacy of the dynasty and have a male heir. Catherine was clearly not able to do that.

But Wolsey wasn’t able to get the annulment – despite his diplomatic brilliance. He died aged 57 already under arrest and more than likely facing an appointment with the ax and block. With his death, Henry lost a very loyal ally and a great mind. But divorcing Catherine came first.

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas More

After Wolsey failed to convince the pope, Henry declared himself head of the Church of England. He effectively nationalised the Catholic church and ended over a thousand years of papal authority in his realm. But not everybody was happy with this development.

Thomas More was a highly effective lawyer and humanist thinker. But also an ardent opponent of the Protestant Reformation and the teachings of Martin Luther. He had worked with Wolsey to try and halt the spread of Protestantism into England. Succeeding Wolsey as Chancellor, he pursued his pro-Catholic agenda.

But here was a King effectively embracing this new variant of Christianity to further his desire to divorce Catherine. Thomas More found it impossible to accept the end of papal authority, let alone agreeing to the idea of Henry leading the church in his stead.

When refusing to acknowledge Henry as supreme leader of the church became a crime, More found himself cast as a traitor. He tried to remain on friendly terms with the king but the final nail in his proverbial coffin was not turning up to the wedding between Henry and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

More was tried for treason and beheaded on 6 July 1535.

DISCOVER: How Anne of Cleves kept her head

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant Reformation – diametrically opposed to the position of Thomas More. He organised the dissolution of the monasteries across England taking the enormous wealth of the Catholic church into the state coffers.

But he tripped up by organising the fourth marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves – a German princess that the king didn’t like at all. However, the knives were already out for Thomas when he went to the executioner’s block.

After Thomas, Henry never really had an adviser of the same calibre as Cromwell, More or Wolsey. Not just advisers but friends and confidantes. They had served the monarch wisely and loyally. But this was a mercurial and authoritarian character who doesn’t seem to have been much good at keeping either friends of wives.

Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs explaining what a wretched figure Henry VIII cut at the end.