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On My Birthday, Six Women From History Who Inspire Me

15/01/2015 13:44 | Updated 17 March 2015
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I have chosen six women about whom I have written or lectured, but in truth, I could easily name sixty or more. History is full of remarkable people from the time of the Pharaohs -- even earlier -- to the present day. Ramses II, my favourite Pharaoh and his devotion to the wife he chose as his No. I, Nefertari, for example. I first travelled down the Nile when I finished school and Abu Simbel and the four statues of Ramses dazzled me -- as did his temple to Nefertari. Her name means "the beautiful has come" and I read all I could find about them both.

As a schoolgirl I developed a passion for Alexander the Great and could not read enough about him, especially how he tamed his horse Bucephalus -- I was a horse-mad teenager and that passion never left me -- nor for Alexander either -- so much achieved in such a short life...

Then there was the great queen Nefertiti of unparalleled beauty, who, with her husband the Pharaoh Akhenaton turned the existing religious beliefs of Egypt upside down by worshipping only one god, Aten.

If I move forward in time, and jump to the Renaissance, there are many inspirational figures there or before, like the Emperor Constantine who brought Christianity to the pagan world of the Romans. And the many saints, artists, philosophers, writers -- the list is endless. Overwhelmed by choice, I have chosen the following seven, having thoroughly researched them for lectures I have given, or books I have written.

1. Yolande D'Aragon

Daughter of the King of Aragon (later Spain) who became known as The Queen of Four Kingdoms -- Naples, Sicily, Jerusalem, Cyprus -- titles she inherited although she never visited one of these places. It was her wisdom and intuition that saved France from the English in the first half of 15th century. She found Joan of Arc and told her what to do; and lent Joan her own army to succeed in the relief of Orlèans. With an uncanny instinct for promotion, and an eye and mind to recognise talent, she chose and trained many of the courtiers who helped to make Charles VII of France into "The Victorious" King.

Inspirational? She is hardly known in history since she always gave the credit for her successes to others. I hope my book on her, "The Queen of Four Kingdoms" will change all that.

2. Diane de Poitiers

She was the eighteen-year-old lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude of France when the queen gave birth to her second son, Henri in 1519. It was Diane who gave him affection and hope when, as a six year old boy, he and his elder brother, the dauphin Francois, were sent to prison in Spain in exchange for their captured father. His mother had died and for six long years in prison he thought of the kindness of Diane who embraced him as he left. On his return, it was Diane who had the two boys in her care with her own two girls. She was asked by his father to make a gentleman of him and she taught him the lessons he had missed while in prison. At fourteen Henri had to marry Catherine de' Medici for reasons of state but he only loved Diane who treated him as her son. Once she was a widow and accused of being a witch on account of her beauty aged thirty-six, it was the eighteen-year-old Henri who championed her at court. They fell in love and in her gratitude and after the death of his brother, she helped him as dauphin and then as king to make the right political decisions. Most of all, despite her love for him and his for her, she secured the succession with her practical maternal advice to Catherine who produced a son a year later, her first child after ten years of marriage.

Inspirational? Despite how much it must have pained her to give her lover's wife advice in this regard, she did it for the sake of her country. I tell her story in "The Serpent and the Moon".

3. Elizabeth Stuart, 'The Winter Queen'

Older sister of the somewhat frail little boy who became Charles I of England, she married her father James I's choice, the Protestant Frederick V Prince of the Palatine, with whom she fell very much in love -- unusual in arranged marriages. Their capital was Heidleberg and she produced two sons. Expecting her third, Elizabeth and her husband were the choice of the Protestant nobility of Bohemia and crowned King and Queen of Bohemia, a part of the Holy Roman Empire, in Prague, in 1619, to the fury of the Emperor. She gave birth to Rupert of the Rhine in the capital and took the people to her heart. However, the Holy Roman Emperor did not take kindly to a part of his empire breaking away and being Protestant.

In 1620 at the Battle of the White Mountain, the armies of the new king and queen were defeated and they fled into exile in The Hague, home of Frederick's mother. This was the beginning of The Thirty Years War, a war of religion between the Protestant north of Europe and the Catholic south. Elizabeth's husband dies; her eldest son dies in a tragic accident; the next two sons fight in the Civil War in England, one on either side; her brother Charles I loses his throne and his head to Cromwell; her money runs out and her many children have no expectations. Throughout her traumatic exile from 1620 until the restoration of her nephew Charles II to the throne of England in 1660, Elizabeth showed courage, humour, and was an example to her many children and the numerous exiles living around her in The Hague. Finally in 1662 she returned home to England to be warmly welcomed by her nephew Charles II and installed at Whitehall Palace. Few were left in London who saw her leave in 1614.

Inspirational? To keep calm and positive in long periods of adversity, trusting in God and oneself.

4. Madame de Pompadour

Born as Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson into a middle class family in Paris, she was sent away to school but as a result of her frail health, came home aged fourteen. Her father was made the scapegoat in a corn scandal and had been obliged to flee France. Her mother, left with two small children, was taken under the protection of a wise and cultured man who took care of her and her children. He saw to it that Jeanne-Antoinette learnt from his wise friends frequenting his salon in early 18th century France. He arranged her marriage to his nephew and heir and they lived very comfortably on the edge of the royal forest of Senart near her country home. Neighbours were permitted to follow the royal hunt and thus Louis XV saw the vision that was Madame de Pompadour, wearing a coral tricorn hat edged with down feathers, dressed in turquoise silk in a small carriage, reins of coral silk in her hands controlling a small pony, a boy blackamoor standing by her side holding a basket of gardenias.

So it began, the great love story between the king called the handsomest man in Europe and the ravishing girl from the bourgeoisie who became known as Madame de Pompadour, the most cultured woman in France. The court totally disapproved of her on account of her origins but Queen Marie Leczinska did not because she said that Madame de Pompadour was always kind, unlike her husband's previous mistresses she said. Until her death aged forty-three in 1764, together with her brother whom she had educated, Madame de Pompadour steered the cultural life of France and acted as the king's first minister. Their love affair did not last more than seven years, but their friendship was total and for life.

Inspirational? Her total devotion to the king long after their passion had faded. She did her utmost to keep him stimulated and interested in various aspects of culture and the arts as well as helping him to govern.

5. Catherine the Great

Summoned to Russia from her father's small principality of Anhalt in Prussia by the Empress Elizabeth, who had been engaged to her uncle long before, Sophie as she was called, changed her name to Catherine in honour of the Empress's mother. She married her nephew and heir Peter in 1745. Her husband was obsessed with his German father's military heritage when Russia was at war with Prussia which did not endear him to the Russians. Catherine, on the other hand, absorbed the Russian language, religion and culture, determined to please. She did, her husband did not, and on the death of the empress, the new emperor Peter threatened to get rid of her. He stopped the war with Prussia - which Russia was winning - making himself even more unpopular. Peter was crowned in 1762 and before she could be sent to a nunnery or worse, Catherine staged a coup with the help of the monarchy's crack regiment and the brothers Orlov. Peter was imprisoned and died in a fight, though many believed Catherine was the instigator.

Perilous times -- but with her supporters' help she was crowned empress the same year. She then put in hand countless reforms and a cultural revolution which westernized Russia, just as Peter the Great had wanted. She erected the great horseman statue on a huge rock dedicated to him in St. Petersburg; opened the great Hermitage museum in 1764; bought entire collections of art and libraries to house in it. She created the famous Theatre of Moscow, the great University and the Academy of Sciences and built schools for boys and girls. She reformed the government, making new laws; fought and won wars against the Ottomans and extended the borders of Russia with the help of her general and great love, Prince Potemkin. Catherine promoted trade and development and invited some of the west's greatest architects and artists to embellish Moscow and St. Petersburg. There seems there was nothing she could not do and was the longest living, reigning empress in Russia's history.

Inspirational? That she could spend the first seventeen years of her young life in a foreign country without family or, at first, friends, with her imprisonment or death always possible due to a husband who wished her gone, and yet she still kept her head. Then, when in power, she achieved so much and literally became Russian so that when she died few people remembered she had arrived as in their country as a minor German princess.

6. Marie Antoinette

She arrived in France from Austria aged fourteen in 1770, the youngest of her mother, the Empress Maria-Theresa's sixteen children. Rather spoilt, lacking serious education, and utterly adorable, she found herself in the sophisticated and immoral court of Louis XV and his mistress Madame du Barry. Her husband was a dear, good but ineffectual young man. Although they were both kind to one another, their marriage was not consummated, which may also have been the cause of Marie-Antoinette's famous extravagance. After her brother Joseph's visit who gave Louis some practical advice, their first child was born in 1778. Once her husband succeeded to the throne, Marie-Antoinette was older and wiser, the mother of three children, and had greatly curbed her extravagance. It was the outbreak of war between Austria and France, something her marriage was supposed to avoid happening, that was largely the cause of the hatred of the people towards their queen, calling her 'Autri-chienne', 'chienne' being French for bitch. Her efforts at simple living at court resulted in her being accused of spoiling the market for luxury goods - just one of the many charges against her. She could do nothing right, whereas when young, and their countries at peace, she could do no wrong. The events of the French Revolution are well known. However, I have always maintained that, as well as recognising and understanding the enormous hatred felt for some kings and queens throughout history, it is always a good idea to consider both who those vilified individuals really were.

Inspirational? Her courage in the face of adversity especially throughout the French revolution until her death. Total reversal of fortune if met with courage is always inspirational.

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The conclusion I have drawn from the lives of these six ladies, who were either born to great privilege or married into it, is that despite their advantages, they all met with adversity, as most everyone does at some point in their lives. It is the way in which we deal with adversity that is the key to character and if the example of some who have done so with courage and energy, with faith in their religion and in themselves, can inspire us, then it is worth knowing more about their lives. To me, that is the point of history -- to learn from the past -- because everything that happens to us has happened before at some point and the more we know, the better we may be able to deal with adversity when we are faced with it.