The Turk

Despite being an antique technology, automatons still manage to enchant us to this day. Considered the ancestors of our modern technology, automatons have been an object of fascination since they were first invented and remain a popular subject in fiction as well, such as Hugo by Brian Selznick. There is one automaton that perhaps inspires the most fascination of all: the Turk, a chess-playing automaton that was invented in eighteenth century Austria-Hungary by Wolfgang von Kempelen.

The Turk by Tom Standage is a biography of this remarkable machine that managed to astound – and confound – millions, playing against several famous figures in history including Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. Invented by Kempelen to impress Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria-Hungary, it was an immediate sensation and he would tour Europe showing off the Turk as it would play live chess games in front of crowds. The period in which it was invented was ripe for possibility: civilization was between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and the Turk was seen as an example of the kind of possibility that could be made with technology, inspiring inventions beyond its automaton and chess-playing origins, such as the power loom.

After Kempelen’s death, the Turk was nearly forgotten as  it was put in storage until it found a new owner and once again its beguiling magic mesmerized the world.

Despite being eventually revealed as an elaborate hoax, which is explained in Tom Standage’s book, it’s still a marvelous invention and still amazing to watch in action, even almost eerie, in this 15-minute video, below. The video seems to be from a documentary that sounds like it’s narrated by Morgan Freeman and also includes the author being interviewed. I’m afraid I don’t know what documentary this is from, so if someone knows, please let me know in a comment.

As I read The Turk and after I’d finished reading it, I was inspired to play chess again. Each chapter is introduced with a fun piece of chess trivia, whether an opening move, endgame, or puzzle (some of the names are especially enjoyable, such as one puzzle named after Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign) and epitaph from a well-known chess player as well as diagrams of particular chess moves.

Whether you like history, automatons, or chess – or all three! – The Turk is an enjoyable and engaging read. For those of you who like web comics, Sydney Padua (of Lovelace and Babbage comic fame) pointed me in the direction of this web comic about the Turk called Clockwork Game.

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Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

— Richard II

In a 2011 NPR feature in which Sharon Kay Penman shared her best historical fiction picks, she said, “When I read a historical novel that really resonates with me, I want to know more about the time, the country and the characters who actually lived. I see books as the keys that unlock our curiosity.” This is true of my own experience reading Ms. Penman’s The Sunne In Splendour (reviewed here), as I learned more about the Wars of the Roses as well as Richard III, thus beginning my fascination with this particular era of British history.

I am also a fan of Shakespeare, and as I researched more about the real kings and queens, dukes, earls, and other nobility, I began to wonder about Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, specifically how the history was portrayed. I’d seen The Hollow Crown series by the BBC that dramatized these plays last year (it was broadcast by PBS in the States this year; the Twitter fan account @HollowCrownFans live tweeted the broadcasts) and I gradually became more curious about the real history versus the drama.

The Henriad is Shakespeare’s four history plays, usually grouped together: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, and Henry V. Shakespeare’s history plays are usually framed as commentary, indirectly, on his own time, the Elizabethan age, and as drama; ultimately portraits of the human condition. While it can be argued that these plays are not historically accurate – Shakespeare shifting certain events or characters to suit his needs – over time, though, his writings have contributed and gradually shaped our perception of that time in history and even our beliefs about them and the individuals. Some taking so firm a hold that it’s only recently that we have begun to question the commonly accepted view – going to such lengths as to restore the reputation of the long-maligned King Richard III, whose skeleton was found in a parking lot earlier this year and it was discovered that he was not a hunch back; or, beyond the Henriad plays, the real Macbeth as a champion of men instead of the popularly held, Shakespearean image of the Scots king as bloodthirsty and lusting for power. We know about these kings without needing to have studied history or read or seen a performance of Shakespeare, for the popular images of them, both good and bad, from his plays are so ingrained into our mass consciousness.

While Shakespeare did not invent that Richard III was a hunchback or born with teeth and hair – he relied upon contemporary historical sources, most notably Holinshed’s Chronicles, for source material – he not only perpetuated certain myths but heavily influenced the king’s posthumous reputation for centuries. Less extreme but no less significant, in the Henry VI plays he made Henry a pious man who would rather not be king but there is no mention or allusion at all to his mental illness, as Elizabeth I was a descendant of Henry VI.

It’s said that truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction replaces the truth.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is well-known primarily for the portrayal of an evil king, deformed and bent on murdering all who are in his way to claim the throne. Even if one does believe that Richard was a brutal, bloodthirsty king, there are still historical inaccuracies that one might take as creative license by Shakespeare to tell the story, such as shifting certain events so that Richard would be old enough to have participated in them. As I learned more about the time period and about the Plantagenets, in context of the Tudor dynasty it interested me how Shakespeare cast Henry IV and Henry V as heroes, in the simplest of terms, but both Richards – Richard II and Richard III – were maligned, and neither left heirs; both succeeded by Henrys. Richard II is portrayed as a weak and ineffectual king, whereas Richard III was hell-bent on getting what he wanted at all costs. Through their respective actions, both Richards ensured their downfalls. However, why the disparity in portrayal of these Plantagenet monarchs? I’ve done my best to attempt to provide an answer, by examining the real history Shakespeare portrayed in his plays.

Having written this post over the course of nearly two months, I’ve struggled with how best to present the material. The further research I did, the deeper I went and the further it continued to grow and expand. I’m afraid I’ve provided more questions than any solid answers, and in some respects I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface or haven’t examined aspects of this history closely enough, yet that would require an essay beyond the five pages that I’ve split this post into.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post – and do take your time, as it is long. To avoid overwhelm, I’ve split this post into five pages. When you reach the bottom of the post, simply click the next number to continue reading.

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Plantagenet

Richard II was but a boy (either eight or ten years old, sources differ) when he ascended the throne in 1377, as immediate successor to Edward III, his grandfather, after the death of his father Edward, the Black Prince. Richard was to be the last king of the main Plantagenet lineage, tracing back to Henry II: the first Plantagenet king. The name Plantagenet derived from Henry II’s father Geoffrey of Ajou’s nickname, who was said to have stuck a branch of brush in his hat. The name would not be used, however, to refer to the dynasty until Richard, Third Duke of York, asserted the Yorkist claim to the throne. Henry III, son of King John (yes, that King John in the Robin Hood tales) is generally regarded as the first Plantagenet king as he was considered truly English rather than French (the previous kings before him, descending from Henry II, are sometimes distinguished as Angevins.)

Lancaster and Tudor 

Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt was the First Duke of Lancaster and wielded great influence during the child Richard II’s reign. It’s from John of Gaunt’s three marriages that two of the houses of English sovereigns were descended: Lancaster and Tudor. His male Lancaster heirs were Henry Bolingbroke (who became Henry IV), Henry V, and Henry VI.

Tudor was descended from his son John Beaufort, by Gaunt’s third marriage to Katherine Swynford. Thus Tudor would have strong ties to Lancaster, as Henry VII was descended from John Beaufort; additionally, Catherine of Valois, after her husband Henry V’s death, married (perhaps secretly) Owen Tudor. Their son Edmund would marry Margaret Beaufort and father Henry Tudor, becoming Henry VII and the founder of the Tudor dynasty.

York

John of Gaunt’s brother Edmund of Langley founded the House of York and it was through the marriage of his son Richard, Third Earl of Cambridge, to Anne Mortimer that the Yorkist claim to the throne was sealed. Anne was a descendant of Edward I and Henry III through her mother, Alice Holland – whose other daughter Margaret was married to John Beaufort – in addition to being a descendant of Edward III through her grandparents. Her grandmother was Philippa of Clarence, the daughter and only child of Edward III’s son Lionel of Antwerp, and would marry Edmund Mortimer, Third Earl of March.

Thus the stage was set for the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses, with the House of Lancaster and the House of York both making claims to the throne. According to Shakespeare’s portrayal, it all began with Henry Bolingbroke deposing Richard II.

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Time and Chance

[This is a review of a sequel. Read the review of the first book, When Christ and His Saints Slept, here.]

Soon upon finishing When Christ and His Saints Slept, I began the sequel Time and Chance. Whereas the first book mostly dealt with Empress Maud and King Stephen’s war for the English throne, Time and Chance is about King Henry II’s reign and his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Henry’s ascension to the throne did not signify peace for England. He campaigned to claim Welsh territories and, most notably, would make his chancellor Thomas Becket archbishop and that would cause a long and bitter battle between them for seven years and that would end in tragedy. Aside from his marriage to Eleanor, it is his public argument with Becket that he is perhaps best well-known, and remembered, for.

Although he would not be crowned as King of France, through his marriage to Eleanor, Henry effectively ruled over both England and France: this would become known as the Angevin Empire.

Against Eleanor and his mother Maude’s advice, Henry appoints his friend and chancellor Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, although he was never a priest. By making Becket archbishop, he believes he can exert his control and reassert his rights over the Church of England. In a dramatic turn of the tables, however, Becket rejects his old lifestyle and zealously throws himself into his new life, becoming a staunch supporter and defender of the church to the point that a bitter resentment and antagonism grows between the two former friends.

Ranulf’s (from WCAHSS) role is expanded in Time and Chance, as he experiences a personal conflict as his loyalties to England and Wales tied as he acts as advisor to Henry as his nephew prepares to conquer Wales, in an attempt to expand his empire’s territories. Despite the advantage of having greater numbers (English as well as Welsh, enemies of the Welsh king Owain ap Gwynedd*), Henry’s attempts are generally futile as the English are unfamiliar with Wales’ harsh landscape and they are ambushed by the Welsh; in one of these ambushes, Henry nearly loses his own life. Seemingly fighting a losing battle, as a last resort to suppress the Welsh Henry orders the Welsh hostages to be taken to Shrewsbury, where they are mutilated. Two of the hostages being Owain’s sons. Within the story, Ranulf leaves the English camp for Wales, enraged by this decision; neither he or Henry will have communication for thirteen years.

Wherever he goes, it is a battlefield for Henry. While his and Eleanor’s union began as a passionate affair, with mutual attraction, their relationship is put under strain as Henry is kept away from home – and from Eleanor – for longer more than the last, with his political campaigns and his public argument with Becket. This also keeps him away from his children, who, as they grow up, come to know their father as well as a complete stranger.

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When Christ and His Saints Slept

Published via Pressgram

Published via Pressgram

After I read The Sunne In Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, it was so riveting that I soon looked up her other books. I nearly read Lionheart next, after reading a blog interview with her, but decided to start at “the beginning”, so to speak, and began with her first book in the Plantagenet series: When Christ and His Saints Slept. I didn’t know what to expect with this one, as I did not have as much interest in or knowledge of this particular period in medieval history, so it was with happiness when I recognized that familiar pull as I became swept into the story and involved with the characters very much in the same way as I did while reading The Sunne In Splendour.

Much like the opening of The Sunne In Splendour, when we meet Richard as a child, Ms. Penman strikes a similar note in the beginning of When Christ and His Saints Slept with Stephen as a child, in a moment of vulnerability when he overhears his parents arguing about his father‘s cowardice during the First Crusade and his mother forces his father to make a second pilgrimage. From the vantage point of seeing different characters as children and through their formative years, we are able to watch them grow up and evolve and, in this way, we are better able to sympathize or even relate to them, and, perhaps, understand their actions.

When Christ and His Saints Slept is about the war for the English crown that would last fifteen years, which would ultimately lead to the beginning of the Plantagenet reign. After the death of his only legitimate son in the sinking of the White Ship, Henry I proclaimed his daughter Matilda (called Maude in the book to distinguish from the many Matildas) his heir. This created much disconcertion as a woman had never ruled in her own right back then and despite making his court swear an oath of allegiance to Matilda, after Henry I died, his nephew Stephen of Blois took the crown and was anointed king instead. This begins a long and bloody war for the crown, Matilda campaigning for what she believes is her right and later, fighting for her son Henry’s right as she realizes that her own hopes of being queen are futile.

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In the Heart of the Sea

Two days ago I read an interview with Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. I first read his book Why Read Moby-Dick? which led me to read next In the Heart of the Sea late last year. It was while I was reading it that I learned that it was being made into a movie that I’ve since been anticipating eagerly.

Details about the movie have been sparse, but more news arrived yesterday that Ben Whishaw is confirmed to play Herman Melville, while Osy Ikhile will be playing Peterson, one of the sailors on the Essex. I’m curious as to how Herman Melville will be written in, as this incident (particularly the whale ramming the ship and its inevitable sinking) inspired him to write Moby Dick but he was not aboard the Essex, although he did later meet the son of the first mate Owen Chase (who will be played by Chris Hemsworth in the movie).

Although I haven’t yet reviewed In the Heart of the Sea here, I do fully recommend it for anyone interested in history or looking for a good adventure story (but based on fact). Even if one doesn’t know about ships or whaling, it is readable and Nathaniel Philbrick does a wonderful job of telling a story as well as informing.

The Sunne In Splendour

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Day two of reading The Sunne In Splendour (published via Pressgram)

The first things I remembered learning about Richard III were 1) he was evil 2) he killed his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. I also remember being of an age – still a child – when one generally accepts what they’re told and doesn’t question it, so I knew that he was bad but I didn’t really comprehend at the time. I remember when my parents rented a VHS of Richard III with Ian McKellen and being told that it was scary, I wasn’t allowed to see it./p>

It wasn’t until in February of this year, in fact, that I began to learn more and understand Richard III when his grave was discovered in Leicester, in a parking lot (or car park, in British English). Either by coincidence or not, about a week before the news broke out, I had intended to watch Richard III, the very same movie my parents had watched years before. I borrowed it from the library and, well, for one reason or another, I kept putting it off until I had to return it, so ultimately didn’t end up seeing it. I still haven’t. (For sake of this post, I did consider watching it but I decided not to, except for the few clips I found and watched on YouTube.)

It was with much interest that I followed the Richard III story, as news broke out and pieces began to be put together, ultimately revealing how much his image was a product of Tudor propaganda – aided, with no thanks, by Shakespeare’s play. It was like a mystery. There is no concrete evidence that he did kill his nephews, which for some means that it isn’t out of the question – there’s just no evidence to prove it. There is just as much, or little, evidence to support either; however, the scales tip forward in his favour that he didn’t when we learn more about him as a person and how, during his brief reign, he helped the common people.

Some months ago I became interested The Sunne In Spendour by Sharon Kay Penman, after learning of it in an interview with Richard Armitage (he is named after Richard III and also has been attached, for a long time, to a project about the king). This is a historical novel that is, at heart, a biography of Richard III, beginning with him as a young boy to his death on the battlefield of Bosworth but it is also about the Wars of the Roses, especially his brother Edward IV. Sharon Kay Penman has that remarkable ability to create dimensional characters, men and women and children, that come alive and make you care about them. It was also through reading this book that I became better able to understand this particular period in time and history. The title derives from Edward IV’s (Richard’s older brother) badge of three suns or a phenomenon known as “parhelion“. He convinced his troops that the suns represented the Holy Trinity, although another version (perhaps in the book – it’s all a blur) states that he said the suns represented himself and his brothers Richard and George.

I borrowed it from the library, but for some reason did not start reading it immediately. (The length and thickness of the book – over 900 pages – didn’t unnerve me, I’ve read books longer than that, such as The Count of Monte Cristo.) I finally resolved to read it when I needed to return it to the library and I was pulled into the story, enthralled, from the beginning. I’ve not read a book in so long that has tugged at my emotions, moved me so deeply. I was involved with all the characters, and especially Richard as a boy – I felt so deeply for him and sympathized, to the point of tenderness. So wrapped up in my emotions was I that, sometimes, I was reading the words but scarcely comprehending what was happening and then–! This last sentence I refer specifically to the death of Edmund, one of Richard’s brothers. It is history, so it is bound to happen, but I invested in the characters from such an early start and so deeply that I grieved with the rest of them.

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A Bloody Big Ship

One of the most memorable scenes in Skyfall is when Bond meets Q at the National Gallery in London, where we first see Bond staring at The Fighting Temeraire. Q breaks the ice when he speaks about the painting:

Q: It always makes me feel a little melancholy. Grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away to scrap… The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see?
Bond: A bloody big ship.

(What follows is a brilliant moment of wit and banter. The whole scene is gold. Watch the clip embedded above.)

As I watched Skyfall, I picked up on the old versus new theme and the different, various references. I wondered if I was reading too much into it – it was, after all, a James Bond movie. I don’t think it was supposed to be deep, or intended as such. If one is to take away one reference that capsulizes Skyfall and James Bond as a whole, though, I think it would be The Fighting Temeraire.

It’s on this note that I borrowed from the library The Fighting Tememraire: The Battle of Trafalgar and the Ship That Inspired J.M.W. Turner’s Most Beloved Painting by Sam Willis. It’s a biography of the ship, strange as it sounds, and though I don’t usually read about naval history, it is an interesting and insightful read. I happened to chance upon it at the library and recognized the painting on the cover immediately, even though – I’m sorry to say – I didn’t immediately remember the painting’s name. (But I was able to find it again easily, by just Googling “a bloody big ship” and looking past the Skyfall fan fiction search results.)

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