CategoriesHistory

Gruffudd ap Llywelyn: the unwanted son

Gruffudd was born to the royal princes of Gwynedd, but as an illegitimate son, he would see his inheritance snatched away. But, although he would never be Prince of Wales himself, his legacy lies in his son.

Details about Gruffudd’s early life are missing from history. We know that his mother was Tangwystl (b c1182), the daughter of Llywarch Goch Lord of Rhos. It is possibly that she had as many as five children[i]  with Gruffudd’s father Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd, despite never marrying him. At least one of his sisters, Gwladus Ddu[ii], is thought to have been older than him and it is likely that he was the youngest of the children born sometime between 1195 and 1205. His mother is recorded as dying from a fall during pregnancy that caused a fatal bleed whilst other historians have concluded that Tangwystl died in childbirth.

King John
King John

For the first few years of Gruffudd’s life, his illegitimacy remained irrelevant. The principles of primogeniture were still forming in Welsh law and Gruffudd was fully entitled to be his father’s heir, even if further, legitimate children were born. This came a step closer in 1206 when Llywelyn married Joan, the illegitimate daughter of King John of England, but it is likely that there were still no children in 1211 when Gruffudd was accepted by the English to act as hostage to ensure Llywelyn’s good behaviour.

Gruffudd remained in England until freed under the terms of the Magna Carta in 1215, by which time a legitimate son, Dafydd, had been born to his father and Joan. What the eldest boy made of it we cannot know, but by May 1220 it was clear that Gruffudd was no longer his father’s heir. Over the next nine years, Llywelyn continued to ensure that it was Dafydd that would succeed him, including having Joan declared legitimate in 1226 by Pope Honorius III and having the boy pay homage to King Henry III in London in 1229.

Gruffudd was not totally forgotten, but his life had now taken a very different turn. He was given lands in Meirionnydd and Ardudwy but after a quarrel with his father, during which war was only averted after clerical intervention, Llewelyn reversed the decision and removed them from him in 1221.

Gruffudd ap Llewelyn
Llewelyn ap Iorwerth and his two sons, Gruffudd and Ddafydd

He made a good marriage to Senana ferch Caradog the daughter of the Lord of Anglesey, and their first child Margred was probably born around the same time as the loss of his lands. By 1223 he was entrusted by his father to lead an army against William Marshall, the English Earl of Pembroke, but their relationship had unravelled again by 1228 and, unable to accept his father’s plan for the succession, Gruffudd was imprisoned for six years.

Criccieth Castle
By Dee Harding - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11114295

Perhaps Llywelyn thought that the matter of the succession was settled when he released Gruffudd in 1234 and returned him to his lands, but Gruffudd remained popular with the Welsh lords who saw no reason to change Wales’ laws of succession and preferred the mab y Gymraes (the Welshwoman’s son) to the half-English Dafydd. When Llywelyn suffered a stroke in 1237 and was unable to rule, Dafydd saw his chance, stripping his brother of his lands and imprisoning him and his son Owain in Criccieth Castle[iii].

There was one last glimmer of hope for Gruffudd. Dafydd became Prince of Gwynedd in April 1240 but in August 1241 he was forced to submit to Henry III when, in a deal with Gruffudd’s supporters (including his wife who paid 600 marks and gave custody of her two youngest sons as surety), the English king invaded on Gruffudd’s behalf.

Or so they thought.

Henry immediately reneged on his deal and instead insisted that Gruffudd and his son be handed over to him. Gruffudd would never know freedom again. In August 1241 he and his three sons, Owain, Dafydd and Rhodri, were all taken to the Tower of London where Senana was allowed to visit. Only Llewelyn ap Gruffudd remained free. Henry’s intention was to use Gruffudd against Dafydd should the Prince of Gwynedd step out of line.

Gruffudd was treated well and provided with half a mark a day for his keep, but on 1 March 1244, after two-and-a-half years as a prisoner of the English king, he made an attempt to escape. How well thought out the plan was and how he intended to get back to Wales is unclear; unfortunately for Gruffudd he never made it further than the Tower. Using his bed linen as a rope he attempted to climb down from the top of the Tower, but it snapped under his weight and he fell, breaking his neck.

Gruffudd ap Llewelyn
Gruffudd ap Llewelyn falling to his death
Llewelyn ap Gruffudd
Gruffudd's son Llywelyn ap Gruffudd

If his son Llewelyn ap Gruffudd held any grudges against his uncle Dafydd ap Llewelyn then he quickly put them aside. Gruffudd’s death left Henry III without a card to play and in 1245 Dafydd rose up against the English king with Llewelyn in support. Owain, the eldest son, was freed from the Tower but stayed in England, leaving Llewelyn to seize the throne when Dafydd died in 1246.

A hundred years earlier and Gruffudd would probably have become Prince of Gwynedd. It was his misfortune to have a half-English half-brother and a father who stuck doggedly to his decision to secure a political alliance with England. Gruffudd could have built himself a life under his brother’s rule, but it’s hard to settle for second best when you know what could have been.

Notes

[i] how many children Llywelyn had and with whom is still debated.

[ii] Gwladus Ddu is now thought to be the child of Joan and not Tangwystl.

[iii] There is still some doubt as to whether the imprisonment happened in 1239 or 1240.

Further Reading

Jones Pierce, Thomas. Graffudd ap Llewelyn. Dictionary of Welsh Biography. Retrieved 1 March 2022. 

Kramer, Kyra. The Death of Gruffudd ap Llewelyn Fawr

Smith, JB. Llewelyn ap Gruffudd. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 1 March 2022.

Tout, TF (revised by A. D. Carr). Gruffudd ap Llewelyn. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 1 March 2022.

Copyright: Samantha Arrowsmith Greenhare History 1 March 2022

CategoriesHistory

How Anne Hyde changed the course of British history

Had Anne Hyde lived beyond 13 March 1671 she would have been Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland, and yet she remains relatively forgotten, lost amongst the more famous Stuart consorts. Married to James, duke of York, the younger brother of Charles II, she did not live to see him become king, but her influence had already set him on a path to disaster.

The gentleman's daughter

Anne was born on 12 March 1637 near Windsor, the eldest daughter of a country lawyer, Sir Edward Hyde. In the turbulent politics of the War of the Three Kingdoms that saw king pitted against Parliament, the family’s fortunes shifted with that of the royal family. 

Anne Hyde
Edward Hyde, Anne's father

Although Anne’s father had initially begun his parliamentary life as a critic of the king, he gradually changed his stance and his elevation to Chancellor of the Exchequer and member of Charles I’s Privy Council in 1643 aligned the family with the king for better or worse.

By 1645 it was worse and when Hyde left Oxford in March it would be another three years before Anne would see him again. First he fled to Jersey with the Prince of Wales, where he stayed for two years despite the prince moving on to Paris after two months. In September 1648, he re-joined the prince, now King Charles II, in The Hague but it was June 1649 before Anne and her family joined him, meeting him at Antwerp as he was on his way back to Paris.

Anne lived in Antwerp until the end of 1651 at which point she moved to Breda, and by 1655 she had been appointed as a maid of honour to Mary, the Princess of Orange and Charles II’s younger sister. Despite the honour, Anne’s father opposed the move: he was fully aware of the licentious nature of the court and how vulnerable his seventeen-year-old  daughter would be to the temptations she now faced on a daily basis.

Anne was popular at the court. Although not considered a great beauty, numerous contemporaries describe her as having ‘a great deal of wit’ and she was well liked by Mary. Exiles from England filled the Dutch court and contemporary letters, including one by the king himself, named several contenders for Anne’s affections, including Sir Spencer Compton, the son of the Earl of Northampton. Her own aunt, Barbara Ailesbury, joked that the ‘unkind gerle hath robed me of all my Gallants’ and the Memoirs of the Count of Grammont (written by the Count’s brother-in-law, Anthony Hamilton) recalled that ‘there were none at the court of Holland who eclipsed her…’

Anne Hyde
Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange

It would not be long, it seemed, before Anne would catch herself a husband far above the aspirations of a gentleman’s daughter.

The loss of a foreign alliance

That husband would be James, duke of York, who, as Charles’ heir, held a special place at court, even if that court was in exile. Although he was a notorious womanizer like his brother, it was expected that his marriage, when it happened, would be to the benefit on England.

‘The duke of York has married…an English miss…

James duke of York husband of Anne Hyde
James, duke of York, around the time of his marriage to Anne c 1660

Anne first met James in 1656 when she accompanied the Princess of Orange to Paris to visit the Dowager Queen Henrietta Maria. The queen’s dislike of the Hyde family was so fervent that not only had she opposed Anne’s appointment as a maid of honour, but Anne’s father informed Lady Stanhope on 16 July 1659 that he had tried to persuade Anne not to go to Paris because of it. James was entranced by her luscious chestnut hair, voluptuous figure, wit and intellect and there is little doubt that he attempted to seduce her, but opinion is divided as to whether Anne submitted. It is possible that they became lovers as early as 1656 with their relationship continuing in secret for the next three years via his occasional visits to his sister’s court in The Hague, but it is more likely that it wasn’t until 1659 that their affair began.

Charles had already had an illegitimate son in 1649 with his mistress Lucy Walter, and then a daughter in 1651 with Elizabeth Boyle, but both had known their place and although Charles acknowledged the children, there was never any thought of marriage. James, however, decided to do things differently, perhaps due to the influence Anne had over him. Sometime in November 1659 the duke entered into an agreement to marry Anne, which, being consensual on both sides and witnessed, was legally binding.

When the Restoration returned Charles to the throne six months later in May 1660 it was already too late for James to go back. Anne had become pregnant sometime in January 1660 and she was beginning to show. There is doubt around when James told his brother what he had done, but it was not received well. Initially, Charles refused to give his consent, her father (now the Earl of Clarendon and thinking of the damage it would do to his reputation) urged the king to imprison her, and James waivered. However, when it became clear that the duke was trapped, Charles tried to find the positives of the situation, telling Clarendon that she was:

Charles II brother-in-law of Anne Hyde
Charles II

‘a Woman of a great Wit and excellent parts, and would have a great power with his brother, and that he knew she had an entire obedience for him her Father, who he knew would always give her good counsel by which he was confident that naughty people which had too much credit with his brother and which had so often misled him, would be no more able to corrupt him, but that she would prevent all ill and unreasonable attempts, and therefore he again confessed that he was glad of it.’

As a result, Anne and James were married on 3 September 1660 at her father’s house in the Strand with only the chaplain and two witnesses present. But that was not the end of it.

Henrietta Maria
Henrietta Maria, Dowager Queen of England c1650

Anne gave birth on 22 October, being forced to defend that the child was James’. In November the Queen Mother made a dash from France to try and persuade her son to renounce the marriage, questioning Anne’s honour in a letter to her sister, the Duchess of Savoy:

‘To crown my misfortunes, the Duke of York has married without my knowledge, or that of the king, his brother, an English miss who was with child before her marriage. God grant that it may be by him. A girl who will abandon herself to a prince will abandon herself to another. I leave for England to-morrow to try and marry my son the king and unmarry the other.’

The Princess of Orange continued her opposition until her sudden death from smallpox on 24 December 1660 and, to aid his escape, several friends embarked on painting Anne as a whore who they had all slept with. According to the memoirs of Anne’s father, one of them, Sir Charles Berkeley, claimed ‘that he was bound in conscience to preserve him from taking to wife a woman so wholly unworthy of him; that he himself had lain with her; and that for his sake he would be content to marry her, though he knew well the familiarity the Duke had with her.’ James waivered again, but by December the marriage was public and there was no going back.

James’ rashness was to have enormous consequences. Charles’ foreign policy revolved around appeasing the French and even his own marriage to the Catholic Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, was at the behest of the French king. Cash-strapped, envious of Louis XIV’s autonomy and beholden to his generosity, Charles had expected that James’ position on the marriage market would help him secure financial independence from parliament and grow England and Scotland’s place on a global stage. Charles may have used James to forge a stronger alliance with France, or, in order to appease Parliament after the disappointment of his own Catholic marriage, to a Protestant princess.

Instead, James had tied himself to an unnoteworthy English nobody who offered nothing to Charles or his security.

Anne Hyde and James Stuart
James and Anne by Sir Peter Lely,1660s

Tragedy and betrayal

Anne’s marriage began with tragedy when the child she had been carrying at her wedding died of smallpox in May 1661 aged 7 months old. She was also finding it difficult to gain respect at court with Samuel Pepys recording that same year that ‘The Duke of Yorke lately matched to my Lord Chancellor’s daughter, which doth not please many.’

‘The Duke of Yorke lately matched to my Lord Chancellor’s daughter, which doth not please many.’

Anne was, however, resilient. She was noted for her intelligence and astuteness, and the wit that had made her popular in The Hague did not desert her, winning her the friendship of the king. Like it or not, Anne was the duchess of York and she made sure that she took her place. Perhaps James was biased when he said that ‘her want of birth was made up by endowments, and her carriage afterwards became her acquired dignity’, but the French Ambassador, Le Comte de Cominges, agreed, reporting on 7 August 1664 that Anne:

 ‘…is as worthy a woman…as I have met in my life, and she upholds with as much courage, cleverness and energy the dignity to which she has been called, as if she were of the blood of the kings…’.

Anne Hyde

Pepys took a different view although his reliability is debatable. He never seems to mention her without some cutting remark and on 24 June 1667 he reported that:

‘…besides the death of the two Princes lately, the family is in horrible disorder by being in debt by spending above 60,000l. per. annum, when he hath not 40,000l.: that the Duchesse is not only the proudest woman in the world, but the most expensefull; and that the Duke of York’s marriage with her hath undone the kingdom, by making the Chancellor [Anne’s father] so great above reach, who otherwise would have been but an ordinary man, to have been dealt with by other people; and he would have been careful of managing things well, for fear of being called to account; whereas, now he is secure, and hath let things run to rack, as they now appear.’

Anne’s intellect was never in doubt and was something she was particularly keen to draw attention to. The historian Sandra Sullivan has shown how Anne used her portraits to emphasis ‘her beautiful hair, the power of her hands and … the power of her intellect, since in holding a book in a society where literacy was restricted to an elite, books were not only symbols of the contemplative life, but symbols of power.’

Anne Hyde

What she expected of her marriage remains a mystery. They still seemed to be affectionate in 1663 when Pepys witnessed them at the theatre on 5 January 1663 showing ‘…some impertinent and, methought, unnatural dalliances there, before the world, such as kissing, and leaning upon one another.’ However, the historian Allan Fea believed that this was a case of over-acting by the pair to try and fool the court into believing that they were still in love.

Arabella Churchill
Arabella Churchill, James' long-term mistress

If she had also expected fidelity then she was quickly disappointed. Almost as soon as they were married James began a year-long affair with one of her maids of honour, Goditha Price, as well as with Anne Carnegie, countess of Southesk. More would follow and in 1665 he began a 13-year-long relationship with Arabella Churchill which would produce four children, including two sons, all of whom lived to adulthood.

This must have been particularly painful for Anne. Of the eight pregnancies she had over the 11 years of her marriage, only two children survived to adulthood, both girls. In 1667 she witnessed the death of her two sons, James duke of Cambridge and Charles duke of Kendal, within a month of each other.

1668 saw a rapid decline in Anne’s health which coincided with the birth of Arabella Churchill’s first child. Lady Chaworth informed Lord Roos on 5 May 1668 that Anne ‘breaks out so ill of her face visibly and of her leg again as people talke – that she was yesterday blooded and kept her bed’. Most damagingly, Anne began to over-eat, causing her to put on a huge amount of weight. In his poem Last Instructions to a Painter Andrew Marvell cruelly wrote of her:

Paint her with oyster lip and breath of fame
Wide mouth that ‘sparagus may well proclaim
With Chanc’llors belly and so large a rump,
There (not behind the coach) her pages jump.

Lady Chaworth wrote again in March 1669 that rumours were circulating that the duchess had been behind a break-in of the duke’s closet in order to find love letters, but she declared that the idea was foolish as ‘alas she is both to [sic] wise, and to [sic] much indisposed to be so curious, being all this time broken out in several places of her face and body, and now in phisick that she is not seene.’

It seems probable that Anne was suffering from depression brought on by her husband’s infidelities, the death of her children, her inability to bear an heir and her wrestling with her conscience over her faith. Life at court was taking its toll on her mentally and the constant pregnancies on her physically.

Despite their lack of children, James did not seek to divorce her. Perhaps this was more to do with his transition to the Catholic faith than because of a sense of loyalty to his wife, but whatever the reason, the lack of a Protestant male heir would change the course of history.

James Duke of Cambridge
Anne's son, James, duke of Cambridge. He died just short of his fourth birthday

 Her daughters were both raised as Protestants on order of the king and it is logical that the same policy would also have applied to a boy. A Protestant son would have eased the need for James’ deposition but even if he had been removed, the Glorious Revolution under the leadership of William of Orange would not have occurred. No William and Mary; no Queen Anne; no Hanoverian dynasty; no Queen Victoria.

Anne Hyde, James, Anne and Mary
Anne with her only two children to survive to adulthood - Mary and Anne. Both would become queen.

Anne's conversion to the Catholic faith

Anne’s most serious effect on James, and the one she had the most control over was in religion.

She had been raised a staunch Protestant, described by her tutor, Dean Morley, as ‘devout and charitable as ever I knew any of her age and sex’, but by the age of twelve she was already beginning to question her faith. Various reasons for her conversion have been offered, from the need to regain her husband’s affection to the influence of Queen Catherine, but ultimately, the decision seems to have been a personal choice and one that coincided with the decline in her health. By 1669 she had converted and in August 1670 she was formally received into the Catholic church although it was kept secret on order of the king.

James duke of York, husband of Anne Hyde
James, duke of York

The consequences of this action were considerable. Anne was known to be strong willed and determined and long before 1669 James had developed a reputation for being influenced by her. Samuel Pepys wrote on 30 October 1668 that he and Thomas Povey had agreed ‘that the Duke of York, in all things but in his cod-piece, is led by the nose by his wife’ and even the king was said to have joked that James was a hen-pecked husband. She was far more intelligent than James and she had read, questioned and reasoned her way to her conversion, writing in August 1670 that:

‘I only in short say this for the changing of my Religion, which I take God to Witness I would never have done if I had thought it possible to save my Soul otherwise.’ 

It seems only logical that she would then use those same arguments to convert her husband to save his soul, which he finally did sometime in 1669, although he did not reveal the fact until forced to by the 1673 Test Act.

Several historians have also taken this view. Murice Ashley believed she was responsible as did John Miller and John Callow. It is impossible to say that James would not have converted without Anne’s influence as he had shown interest in Catholicism when in exile, but he had resisted his mother’s earlier attempts to convert him and he had angrily protected his brother Henry from her when she had tried to convert him too. But if Anne’s influence was as strong as rumour said, despite his infidelity, it is likely that she had a large part to play in his final decision.

Anne Hyde
Anne at the beginning of her marriage
Anne towards the end of her life
Anne towards the end of her life

It would be a catastrophic one. James’ conversion would have huge implications on both his own future and that of the three kingdoms. Although his succession as king on Charles’ death was peaceful, it did not last, and James’ attempts to move both court and parliament towards Catholicism led to the Glorious Revolution, his deposition and, ultimately, the end of the Stuart dynasty (when his daughter Anne finally died childless in 1714). Anne Hyde had again changed history. Had James never married her, had she not converted, had she not influenced him, then his own conversion was not guaranteed. A James II who had retained his Anglican faith would have changed the course of not only his own reign, but would have pathed the way to his son with his second wife becoming James III.

James II and second family
James II with his second wife, Mary of Modena, and their family in exile

Died little beloved

Anne was never well again after 1668. She continued to get pregnant and watch her children die and she continued to eat. She was pregnant for the last time in late 1670, from which she herself admitted that she never fully recovered. 

Anne Hyde

Her cause of death on 31 March 1671 aged only 34 is debated. The idea that she was suffering from breast cancer is widely quoted although there does not seem to be any contemporary evidence of it. She had dined the night before with her brother-in-law but then collapsed leading to a diagnosis of appendicitis by some historians. Lastly, there is the ongoing illness that had affected her face and legs and may have led to her ultimate demise.

Whatever the cause, Anne’s body doesn’t seem to have been treated well, being ‘tost and flung about and every one did what they would with that stately carcase.’ 

Gilbert Burnet, the biased Anglican Bishop of Salisbury, claimed that she ‘died little beloved. Haughtiness gained many enemies…[her] change of religion made her friends think her death a blessing at that time.’

Although her friend and nurse, Margaret Blagge, recorded that ‘none remembered her after one weeke [sic], none sorry for her…’, Anne’s influence on history is significant. How James’ life would have turned out without her is another ‘what-if’ of history, but she had such a huge impact on his availability to make alliances, his inability to have a living Protestant male heir and his change in faith, that history would certainly not have been the same without her.

Mary II
Anne's eldest daughter, Mary II
Queen Anne
Anne's youngest daughter, Queen Anne

Further reading

Abernathy, Susan. Anne Hyde, Duchess of York. 11 January 2019.

Earle, Peter. The Life and Times of James II. Book Club Associates, London, 1984.

Fea, Allan. James II and his wives. Methuen and Co, London, 1908.

Hamilton, Anthony. Memoirs of the Count of Grammont.

Henslowe, JR. Anne Hyde Duchess of York. T W Laurie, London, 1915.

Melville, Lewis. The Windsor Beauties: ladies of the court of Charles II (revised edition). Victorian Heritage Press, USA, 2005.

Miller, John. Anne (née Anne Hyde), Duchess of York. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 15 February 2022.

Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. 1893 edition.

Speck, WA. James II and VII. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 15 February 2022.

Sullivan, Sandra Jean. ‘Representations of Mary of Modena, Duchess, Queen Consort and Exile: Images and Texts’. Unpublished PhD thesis, University College London, 2008.

Zuvich, Andrea. Anne Hyde – the commoner that became a duchess. 12 March 2013.

Copyright: Samantha Arrowsmith Green Hare 16 February 2022

CategoriesHollywood

1950: the year everything changed for Marilyn Monroe

In 1949 Marilyn Monroe was a model with a couple of movies and two failed film contracts behind her. By the end of 1950 she would be on her way to stardom. We ask what happened that year to make the difference? 

Getting a new agent: Johnny Hyde

When Monroe first met Johnny Hyde at the very end of 1948 she knew what it was to be rejected – her first film contract with 20th-century Fox had been terminated in 1947 and she had also seen her time with Columbia Pictures end in rejection. Hyde would make a huge difference to her career – he was one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood with 30 years in the business, and he would use it to get the 24-year-old Monroe noticed. 

Much of his desire to help her was driven by the fact that he was also in love with her. He was 31 years her senior with a wife and family, but by 1950 he had left them and set up home with Marilyn in Palm Beach. It was here that he arranged for her to be photographed by Earl Leaf. He proposed to her more than once but she always refused, claiming that although he promised her wealth and security, she simply wasn’t in love with him.

Marilyn Monroe
On set in 1947

Nevertheless, Hyde devoted himself to promoting her, despite having been warned by his doctor to slow down. He arranged for some minor plastic surgery to her chin and nose and with Natasha Lytess (the drama coach she had met at Columbia Pictures), he honed her acting skills. There were more modelling assignments, work on advertisements and finally, more movies.

The release of The Asphalt Jungle - 12 May 1950

“Marilyn didn’t get the part because of Johnny. She got it because she was damned good.”    John Huston
Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn and Natasha Lytess NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In 1949, Johnny secured Monroe an audition for a small part in John Huston’s new film, The Asphalt JungleContrary to Monroe’s life-long ability to always be late, she did take her role as an actress seriously and she worked hard for the audition, spending three days and nights preparing with Lytess. The part was, in some ways, a cliché – the crooked lawyer’s young mistress – but she made Angela Phinlay more than just a gangster’s mole. There was a naïve innocence to her portrayal and she made the best of her short appearance.

 

“I played a vacuous, rich man’s darling attempting to carry herself in a sophisticated manner in keeping with her plush surroundings…I saw her as walking with a rather self-conscious slither and played it accordingly.”

The film’s release in May 1950 got Marilyn noticed. Although it didn’t generate immediate offers for big roles, people had begun to take notice of her:

‘There’s a beautiful blonde, too, name of Marilyn Monroe, who plays Calhern’s girlfriend, and makes the most of her footage.’ – Photoplay
Marilyn Monroe

Life magazine photoshoot - August 1950

Monroe would become one of the defining faces of Life Magazine during the 1950s, but her first photoshoot is almost forgotten. The studio got her a session with Life photographer Ed Clark who took her to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. She read poetry in a shirt embroidered with MM and posed in a bikini top while reclining on a bench. 

The photos were never published – Marilyn was not yet famous enough – but things had changed by 1 January 1951 when she appeared in the magazine for the first time as part of a story entitled ‘Apprentice Goddesses’ as ‘Busty Bernhardt’.

She would go on to appear on its cover six times, the first being in April 1952.

Marilyn Monroe

The release of All About Eve - 13 October 1950

“I felt Marilyn had edge. There was breathlessness about her and sort of glued-on innocence about her that I found appealing.” Joseph L Mankiewicz

A month before The Asphalt Jungle’s release, Monroe began filming All About Eve. She had done a couple of movies earlier in the year (Right Cross and Hometown Story), neither of which had done well at all, but this film was in a whole different league.

All About Eve
Bette Davis and Gary Merrill in All About Eve

All About Eve starred Bette Davis in the lead role and Anne Baxter in support. Davis was coming out of a bad break with her long-term studio, Warner Brothers, and it was pure luck that she was cast.

Margo Channing, an aging star of the theatre, takes a young aspiring actress under her wing only to discover that she is scheming to steal her crown.

Monroe’s part as a young starlet was smaller than the one that she had in The Asphalt Jungle yet was far more significant in terms of her future. She was sharing scenes with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and reaching a bigger audience than ever before.

It wasn’t all easy sailing for Monroe and she notoriously struggled with the scene filmed in the theatre lobby. It took 11 takes to say her few lines, incurring the wrath of the frustrated Davis. She was so shook-up that she promptly returned to her dressing room to be sick. 

Despite her struggles, she played the role perfectly. She is ditsy and flighty, with not much more than her prettiness to advance her career, but unlike Eve, she has nothing to hide. She is a perfect contrast to the conniving and underhanded Eve who is prepared to steal husbands and parts to get to the top.

The film was released on 13 October 1950 to critical acclaim and won six awards, including Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars in March 1951. 

At the same ceremony, less than a year after the release of The Asphalt Jungle, Monroe was now famous enough to be asked to present the award for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Recording.

A triumph and a tragedy - December 1950

As Johnny predicted, All About Eve got her noticed. The head of 20th-century Fox, Darryl F Zariuck, was impressed and prepared to give her another chance at the studio. With Hyde at the helm of the negotiations, she passed the screen test and, on 10 December, she signed a 6-month contract with the studio that had rejected her in 1947.

1950 had changed Monroe’s life forever and set her on the path to stardom. But it ended in tragedy. 

A week after having signed her new contract, Hyde suffered a heart attack and died.

His estranged family insisted that Monroe stay clear of the funeral, but she went anyway and, unable to contain her grief, collapsed over the coffin.

Monroe’s mental health was fragile, compounded by her mother’s own illness, the sexual abuse she suffered and feelings of inadequacy and isolation.

Marilyn Monroe

Little wonder then that she found Hyde’s death almost impossible to deal with. On top of her own fragility, she was also suffering from profound guilt – she had declined to stay at his house the weekend of his death and felt that she was responsible.

Not only had Monroe lost her lover, but also her friend and mentor. She owed her fledgling career to him and losing him meant not only personal grief but also professional uncertainty. 

The day after the funeral, Monroe attempted suicide by swallowing the contents of a bottle of barbiturates. It’s unlikely that this was the first time she had tried it and it would mark a long and painful cycle of attempts until she finally succeeded in 1962.

Monroe would survive the ordeal plus 20th-century Fox kept its contract with her meaning that, even without Johnny, she still had a chance to continue her career. Through 1951 and 1952 her fame would continue to grow and her visual style and breathy delivery were gradually established. 

By the end of 1953 she was established as one of Hollywood’s top earners and its biggest sex symbol.

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe
CategoriesHollywoodUncategorised

The 5 faces of Errol Flynn

'I don't know whether I can convey how deep the yearning is of an actor who has been stereotyped, who has the sword and horse wound around him, to prove to himself and to others that he is an actor.'
Errol Flynn

We remember Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, Peter Blood and Don Juan – all of them swashbuckling heroes who are as equally good at fighting as they are at being charming. It was an image that gave Flynn his fame and one that he would return to over and over, but it was also one which trapped him.

‘If a stereotype makes money, keep the stereotype alive. Don’t make a switch. Don’t experiment, don’t pander to an actor’s whim that he might like to do something special, different.’

Flynn wanted to be more than a one-trick-pony and here are 5 films that show how he brought different personas to his films.

Flynn the adventurer: Captain Blood (1935)

Although Robin Hood is probably his most famous role, the swashbuckling pirate, Captain Blood, is where it all started for Flynn in 1935. Originally offered to Robert Donat who had to turn it down due to ill-health and a desire to work more in the UK, it can be viewed as one of those twists of fate that actually turned out for the better.

Flynn

In real life, pirates can be a pretty rotten bunch, so perhaps that is why although Captain Blood is a pirate film, Flynn doesn’t actually play a pirate at all. His character is actually a doctor who, whilst trying to help an injured man, is falsely accused of treason and shipped to the Caribbean as a slave. There, he is bought by Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) and sparks fly. It is only after he escapes that he becomes a pirate, although he is a pirate with a moral code and sense of honour. When fellow pirate, Captain Levasseur (played by the fantastic Basil Rathbone), reverts to typical brigand behaviour and captures Arabella, one of the best sword fights on screen ensues.

What makes Flynn so good at the pirate persona is that there is so much of himself in it. The genre allowed the film studios to bypass the Hollywood code and show drinking, fighting, bawdy behaviour and womanising. Flynn was good at all these, although they would eventually lead to his early death at 50. But it was more than that. Flynn was born to play debonair, athletic and dashing heroes, and sword fights were his shop window. He makes a good adventurer because that is exactly what he was – in his memoirs Flynn claimed that he had once been a real-life pirate, and although it may not have been true, somehow it seems possible.

flynn

It would not be the last pirate he played: there would also be The Sea Hawke (1941) and Against all Flags (1952). He would also continue to play adventurers, even at the end of his career when his looks were fading and his body was giving up, such as The Master of Ballantrae (1953), his last movie for Warner Brothers. Audiences still believed in him because he was Errol Flynn and he would always be the personification of the handsome, charming rogue.

‘By instinct I’m an adventurer; by choice I’d like to be a writer; by pure, unadulterated luck, I’m an actor.’

Flynn the cowboy: Dodge City (1939)

Flynn was very unsuited to being a cowboy. He was far too clean and sophisticated for a man supposedly living life on horseback. His accent was all wrong and his moustache was what villains had, not heroes.

And yet he made eight westerns during his career beginning with Dodge City in 1939. With him is Olivia De Havilland and Alan Hale, two of his most consistent co-stars, and it is the only one of his westerns where they try to explain away his Tasmanian accent by claiming he was a well-travelled Irish soldier.

In typical Flynn fashion, he begins the film as a man looking to avoid responsibility, wanting a free and easy life, but the death of a boy changes his outlook. The Flynn that now appears is stern, determined and driven. He will not stop until he ends the violence and although he remains charming, he is now a man to be reckoned with. There is no swashbuckling here.

Despite his obvious drawbacks, the film and Flynn were a success, but his subsequent westerns were a slow decline in quality. As with many movies of the era, some of the attitudes towards First Nation tribes, people of colour and slavery are difficult to watch with modern eyes and mar the entertainment factor. But the scene where the young Harry Cole (played by nine-year-old Bobs Watson) is killed after being dragged down the street by wild horses is still one of the most powerful and harrowing depictions of the death of a child in cinema history.

Flynn the historical figure: Gentleman Jim (1942)

Flynn played several historical characters during his career, many of whom had actually existed. In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex he was Robert Devereux; in They Died With Their Boots On he was General Custer; and, of course, Robin Hood.

In Gentle Jim he is the boxer Jim Corbett. Like most biopics, it is highly fictionalised in its telling of the story of the son of an Irish livery driver who works his way from being a bank clerk to a professional boxer. His character is a brash social climber, yet he is charming and stylish and instantly likeable, much like Flynn himself. This is why the film works so well. Flynn is playing Flynn. He is able to make the audience like him and he is a natural contrast to his brutish competitor, John L Sullivan.

But the film also makes sure that he is depicted as a man of honour as when he shows his compassion to his defeated foe at the end of the film. Flynn may be a rogue, but he is a decent one.

Flynn the anti-hero: The Sisters (1938)

The Sisters is one of Flynn’s lesser known movies but it shows a side of him that conflicted with his usual easy-going, heroic character.

The film follows the story of the three Elliott sisters at the turn of the twentieth-century. Flynn plays Frank, a journalist with aspirations of being a novelist, who sweeps Louise, played by Bette Davis, off her feet and away from her fiancé. The marriage runs into trouble due to Frank’s drinking and feelings of being trapped; Flynn is beset by demons, failure and anger which he takes out on his strong and determined wife.

flynn

The Sisters was primarily a vehicle for Davis although she had to fight to get her name alongside Flynn’s at top billing. She had already won an Oscar, yet she was only paid $2250 a week compared to his $4500, something that even Flynn acknowledged as ridiculous.

She had been keen to work with Flynn but she found their differing ways of working hard to deal with. Davis was an actress always looking to improve her craft, whilst Flynn was too interested in partying for her liking. Davis said of Flynn:

‘For this particular role of a restless, confused newspaperman, he was well suited. Handsome, arrogant and utterly enchanting, Errol was something to watch.’

In turn, Flynn understood Davis’ star quality and admitted that ‘she was a far better actress than I could ever hope to be an actor.’

What makes the film work is the fact that they are the right actors playing the right characters. He is an arrogant, charming rogue to her powerful, driven woman, exactly as they were in real life.

Flynn the doomed hero: Dawn Patrol (1938)

Flynn and Rathbone were reunited in Dawn Patrol where they were joined by David Niven. The film centres around three members of the Royal Flying Corp during the Great War, with Flynn and Niven playing pilots who live for today, knowing that their chances of surviving each mission is getting slimmer.  Rathbone is the commander forced to send his men to certain death, labelled as a butcher and heading for a breakdown.

This is one of Flynn’s best films. With an anti-war message at its heart, he begins as a devil-may-care, charismatic joker, and the fact that he was acting the scenes of drunken revelry with his real-life best friend brings a natural comradery to the film. But when the responsibility of command is suddenly thrust on him, he changes. He begins to understand the weight that Rathbone had carried and when he is forced to send someone on a suicide mission he can’t do it. He goes himself and pays the price.

Flynn and Niven
CategoriesHistory

Charles III or George VII – a brief history of regnal names

When you have been known by your family and the world as Charles for 73 years, why would you suddenly want to change it so late on in life? For the Prince of Wales, this is not a hypothetical question. New monarchs will make one of the most important decisions of their reign at the very beginning: what regnal name will they and their legacy be known as? With his mother now 95, it is a question which is also becoming more pertinent and may need an answer soon. Will he be Charles III?

There was a time when a monarch’s regnal name did not vary from their birth name. It was a given that William of Normandy would be called William I and that James VI would keep his Scottish name when he became King of England, even if he adopted a new regnal number.

William I
William I
James VI and I regnal
James VI and I

When Edward I named his eldest son John, he did so with the full intention that he would become King John II. There was no negative connotations with the name then as there is now to make him think that his son would  change his name on accession. Similarly, Henry VII carefully named his firstborn, fully expecting that he would become King Arthur I. 

Edward I and his children including John and Alphonso

Names have been given to heirs which would have greatly widened the variety if they had lived. Edward III’s third son was heir apparent for 9 years and would have become King Alphonso I. Had Edward II died in childhood like his older four brothers we would have had a King Thomas I. If Henry IV hadn’t usurped the throne, Richard II would have been succeeded by King Edmund I. There was also nearly a King Frederick I (known colloquially as Fred) and a Queen Charlotte I.

regnal names
Princess Charlotte
regnal names
Frederick, Prince of Wales

The tradition of automatically accepting the birth name as the regnal name changed with Queen Victoria, or rather, Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, who opted to take her second name as her regnal moniker when she became queen in 1837. One reason may have been because she was never actually meant to be called Alexandrina. Her parents had proposed Victoire Georgiana Alexandrina Charlotte Augusta but the final decision lay with the Prince Regent. He immediately objected to Georgiana due to its placement before Alexandrina which was being given in honour of the Russian Tsar. He then left the parents waiting until the christening before he gave a pronouncement on the other names, and then only reluctantly. Brusquely, he agreed to Alexandrina first and then, when the baby’s mother began crying, ‘Give her the mother’s name also, then, but it cannot precede that of the emperor.’ It was hardly an auspicious start and although they at first called her ‘Drina’ she became known as Victoria from about the age of four.

There was talk that she should change her name to something other than Victoria when she became queen – Elizabeth and Charlotte were suggested by Parliament in 1831, but Victoria decreed she wanted to keep her own name.

regnal names
Queen Victoria with her son Albert, the future Edward VII

Two other kings have followed her example – her son and great-grandson. Coincidently, or maybe not, both were called Albert. The first chose the very traditional English name, Edward, to become Edward VII, although there had also been an Anglo-Saxon king with that name. It tied this very German family to the deep roots of the English nation. If Victoria had intended for him to carry his father’s name to the throne as Albert I, she would not have been not amused (sorry, couldn’t resist!). Edward proclaimed:

‘I have resolved to be known by the name of Edward, which has been borne by six of my ancestors. In doing so I do not undervalue the name of Albert, which I inherited from my ever-to-be-lamented, great and wise father, who by universal consent, is, I think, deservedly known by the name of Albert the Good, and I desire that his name should stand alone.’

Thirty-five years later Albert, duke of York, made the same decision, choosing to be named George in honour of his father, George V.

So what about Charles, Prince of Wales? After so many years as Charles there is a lot to be gained by keeping the name. For one, there would be a sense of continuation if he stayed by the name we all know, at a time when the country will be in the process of such huge change. But Charles has always said that he sees the roles of Prince of Wales and King as very distinct entities and so a change of name might be just the thing to reflect that. Besides, would we all get a bit confused if we start having to call him something else?

It’s also been suggested that his causes might suffer if they are no longer identified with Charles, but his passion is so public that it is unlikely that people will suddenly stop recognising his support if he answers to another name. It’s also possible that some of those causes might retain their connection with the designation of the Prince of Wales through William rather than transferring to the king.

regnal name
By Dan Marsh - Flickr: Prince Charles (derivate by crop), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20368155

The most obvious reason why he might change his name is because of the legacy of its previous incumbents. Charles I lost his crown and his head during the War of the Three Kingdoms/English Civil War, and, given some of the problems that the family have been facing over the last few years, he might not want to give anyone ideas. But, as The Guardian reported, a lot of people won’t be familiar with the history, whilst others won’t necessarily marry one man’s fate with another.

Charles I
Charles Stuart who styled himself Charles III

There is, of course, one other motive for choosing not to be known as Charles III – it has already been taken. Charles Stuart, grandson of the ousted James II, claimed the throne and title until his death in 1788. It was never acknowledged, and you wont find him called it in any history book, but the current Charles might want to stay clear of the name all the same.

Philip, Arthur and George are seen as the most likely contenders for an alternative. George VII will probably have it in honour of his grandfather, although Prince Philip’s death might make him stop and think for a bit. But he can chose any name he wants – so maybe there is still a chance of us getting a King Alphonso I after all.

Green Hare History Blog

CategoriesHistory

The prisoners of Pevensey Castle

Built as a roman fort, by the fifteenth century Pevensey Castle was being used as a state prison. We look at some of the most important prisoners who were kept there.

On the East Sussex coast sits the ruins of one of England’s least well-known and yet most significant castles. Once perched on a peninsula surrounded by sea and salt marches, it was one of several Saxon Shore forts built around AD290 possibly by one of the two self-proclaimed Emperors of Britain, Carausius and Allectus, as a defence against a counter attack by the government in Rome. It now lies a mile from the coastline but still retains some of its original Roman walls, a rarity in England.

pevensey castle
Lieven Smitsderivative work: Hchc2009 (talk) CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17155846

It was known by the Romans as Anderida, but at some time after their withdrawal it became linked with a Saxon resident named Pefen and adopted the name Pefen meaning River of Pefen.

In 1066 William of Normandy chose Pevensey Bay as the place to land and launch his invasion of England and it would be the site of the first Norman castle in the country, built within the Roman walls. Over the centuries, ownership passed between the crown, its allies and its enemies, and it took on new strategic importance, remaining a key coastal defence until the sea began to recede around 1300.

In 1394 Sir John Pelham become its Constable, holding it for the Lancastrian cause during Henry Bolingbroke’s invasion. Henry IV personally addressed him as his ‘dear esquire’ and awarded his unshakable loyalty with various grants and ceremonial honours and by making him one of the five executors of his will.

He also entrusted him with some particularly important prisoners: a duke, earl, king and witch.

The duke: Edward, duke of York (1405)

Edward was the grandson of Edward III through his fourth surviving son, Edmund of Langley, duke of York. Edward was a close supporter and friend of his cousin, Richard II, from whom he received numerous titles, grants and land, including the dukedom of Aumale in 1397. When Richard and their mutual cousin Henry Bolingbroke fell out, Edward supported the king and did well from Bolingbroke’s exile from England in 1398, when he received lands which were part of the Lancastrian inheritance. He was with the king in Ireland when Bolingbroke invaded and has been identified as responsible for advising Richard to split the army, an action which helped bring about his downfall. The king’s army collapsed around him – Edmund of Langley, who had been left in charge of England, surrendered to Henry and Edward soon followed his father’s example and deserted Richard.

Portrait by Edward Harding in 1793, after a fifteenth-century original in the chronicle of Jean Creton (Harley MS 1319 fol. 57)

Although he spent a short period in the Tower of London and lost his Aumale title, Edward was spared Richard’s fate, who was removed from power and assassinated shortly afterwards. The new Henry IV was prepared to accept Edward’s allegiance and allowed him to succeeded his father to become the 2nd duke of York in 1402.

However, it was not long until Edward fell into trouble again with his royal cousin. Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, had once been the heir presumptive to Richard II and he and his brother Roger were kept in close custody by Henry IV at Windsor Castle. In a scheme known as the Tripartite Indenture, their uncle, Sir Edmund Mortimer, was part of a plot to overthrow Henry IV and divide England and Wales between himself, Owain Glyndŵr and Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. As part of the plan, Edmund and Roger were freed on 13 February 1405 but they were quickly discovered on their way to Wales. Party to the abduction was York’s sister, Constance, the Countess of Gloucester, who soon accused her brother of being involved. At first he denied it but later admitted that he had known about the plot. Henry took decisive action and Edward was arrested and sent to Pevensey Castle.

Edward was held prisoner for seventeen weeks, kept in the better parts of the castle rather than the flooded dungeons. Sir John’s loyalty to the king never flinched, but he did help Edward to deliver personal letters to the king, enabling him to petition for his release. The relationship would last, with York making Pelham a trustee of his estates and, in 1412, delegating him part of the lordship of Tynedale and Wark. In 1415 York gave Pelham freehold of his London residence and took his illegitimate son with him on the French campaign. Evidence in Edward’s will also indicates that he formed a bond with another gaoler, Thomas Playsted who was left a gift ‘for the kindness he showed me when I was in ward at Pevensey’.

pevensey castle Britain
By Barbara van Cleve - CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35738577

Edward was able to rebuild his relationship with the king and on 8 December 1405 he was restored to his lands with Pelham being rewarded (and compensated) by receipt of the Chief Stewardship of the duchy of Lancaster’s southern estates.

York’s loyalty did not waiver again although his younger brother Richard, earl of Cambridge, was beheaded on 5 August 1415 for his part in the Southampton plot to overthrow Henry V. Ironically, York died a hero at the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415.

The Duke of York was also lost,
For his king, no foot would he flee
Til his bascinet to his brain was bent.

The earl: Edmund, earl of March (1406-1409)

Edmund was only thirteen at the time of the Tripartite Indenture when he and his brother were abducted from Windsor Castle and the event threw the boys back into the spotlight.

Edmund was descended from Edward III through his second surviving son Lionel, duke of Clarence, and, as such, was a better claimant to the throne than Henry IV who was descended from Edward III’s third surviving son, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. However, Edmund’s claim was through a female line, giving Henry the edge. But Henry could not ignore the young March and his brother, and he had them kept in the custody of Sir Hugh Waterton who was created Governor of them and the king’s children, John and Philippa, in July 1402.

Edward III and his eldest son, Edward of Woodstock

On 1 February 1406 the boys were transferred to Pevensey Castle under the guardianship of Sir John who received an allowance of 500 marks a year from the March estate for their upkeep. On 1 February 1409 they were transferred to the custody of the Prince of Wales, but their time in Sir John’s care created a lasting bond; March would later make Pelham a trustee of his estates and would accept a life annuity from him for his Sussex properties at Drayton and Chichester.

Edmund would find a more stable life under Henry V. Although he upset the king with his choice of bride, he remained one of his most trusted councillors, accompanying him to France and never making any assertion to the throne. He carried the sceptre at Queen Catherine’s coronation and became part of Henry VI’s regency council. He died aged 33 of the plague in Ireland.

The king: James I of Scotland (1415)

James I of Scotland. 16th century painting

On 22 March 1406, the eleven-year-old James, heir apparant of Scotland, was taken prisoner by English pirates whilst trying to reach France. His elder brother David had been murdered and his uncle, the Duke of Albany, had his eyes on the throne, so the king had sent James away on the pretence of furthering his education, though Henry IV joked:

‘Of course, if the Scots had been our friends, they would have sent the young man to me for his education, as I know the French language.’

Within weeks of being in England, James’ father died and, now king, the boy was far too valuable to send back to his own kingdom. For the next 18 years, James remained a hostage in England although, after a period in the Tower of London, he retained his own household of Scottish nobles and continued to communicate with Scotland through ambassadors. 

His uncle was in no rush to have him freed, refusing to pay the ransom the English king had set despite arranging for his own son’s ransom to be paid in 1415. His expenses were paid for by the English king and his education fostered a love of sports, music and poetry, inspiring him to write The King’s Quire. On reaching maturity he became part of Henry IV’s court, living between Windsor and London.

Henry IV’s death in 1413 changed James’ position at court. With a deep suspicion of his Scottish prisoners and a need to assert his authority in his new kingdom, Henry V moved the Scottish king to the Tower of London on the very first day of his reign.

By February 1415 he was at Pevensey Castle under Sir John’s custody, who received a grant of £700 on 22 February 1415 for the care of his royal prisoner. James remained in Sussex for just under a year and there is no reason to suggest that Sir John did not treat him as well as he had treated his other political prisoners.

pevensey castle
By Prioryman - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32616292

James was moved on to other castles and in 1420, thanks to Henry’s interests in France, his importance grew. He crossed the Channel to France with Henry V, was a prominent guest at Catherine of France’s coronation as Queen of England on 23 February 1421 and escorted Henry’s body back from France in September 1422.

His ransom was finally paid in 1424 and after marrying the woman who had inspired his poetry, Joan Beaufort, he returned to Scotland. Unfortunately, life there would not end well. Having learnt his method of kingship in England, the Scottish nobles were resistant and he was assassinated in 1437, reportedly stabbed ‘to upwards of 30 wounds, some of which went through his heart’.

The witch: Joan of Navarre, Dowager Queen of England (1419-1420)

tomb of Henry IV and Joan
Tomb of Henry IV and Joan of Navarre By Ken Eckert - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39240719

Pevensey Castle had formed part of the queen’s dowery for much of the 13th century, but when Joan of Navarre arrived there on 15 December 1419 she did so not as a guest but as a prisoner accused of ‘compassing the death and destruction of our lord the king [Henry V] in the most treasonable and horrible manner that could be devised’. She had been accused of being a witch.

It was not an accusation that was made lightly, nor one that was received without a great deal of concern. Even by the turbulent standards of the medieval period, her sudden arrest signified a remarkable fall from grace for a woman who was the daughter of the King of Navarre, mother of the Duke of Brittany, wife of one King of England and step-mother to another.

Joan came to England and married Henry IV on 7 February 1403. The union is generally accepted as a love match, with the two having become acquainted during Henry’s time in Brittany where Joan was the wife of the duke, John IV. On John’s death Joan served as regent for her ten-year-old son, but gave up the position to marry the King of England. The marriage was happy and although they did not have any children of their own, she had a good reputation with her stepchildren including the Prince of Wales, who often called her ‘his dearest mother’. In 1415, now as Henry V, he even trusted her to act as his regent in England whilst he was in France.

By 1419 their relationship had changed. It is possible that the imprisonment of her son, Arthur of Brittany, had soured their bond, but the accusation of sorcery by her personal confessor, Friar Randolph in August 1419 was still unexpected.

What really lay behind the accusation was that Joan was a woman of considerable wealth at a time when the king was a man in need of money. Henry IV had granted his queen a dowry of £6500 per year, a huge increase of £2000 to what was usual, including the wealthy manors of Leeds, Havering and Nottingham. The moment that the arrest was made on 29 September 1419 Joan’s lands were forfeited to the crown and a new stream of income became available to the king.

pevensey castle
By Michael Coppins CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51097893

We know that throughout her imprisonment Joan was treated well and that she was allowed to bring her own servants and entertain guests, including her youngest stepson Humphrey, duke of Gloucester. She was moved from Pevensey on 8 March 1420 and taken on to Leeds Castle in Kent where she spent most of the rest of her imprisonment. She was never charged, a sure sign that no one ever really took the accusation seriously, and was finally released in July 1422, with the king, wishing to clear his conscious, ordering that ‘as ye will appear before God for us in this case to restore the queen wholly of her dower’. Henry died six weeks later and Joan returned to a quiet life, dying at Havering on 10 June 1437.

No longer at the forefront of England’s sea defences, Pevensey found a new purpose under the Lancastrian kings. With their loyal servant, Sir John Pelham, in charge they knew that the castle was a safe and impenetrable location for the state’s most valuable and politically sensitive prisoners.

Want to visit Pevensey Castle?

Main photograph by By Prioryman (talk) CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32477584

 

CategoriesBlog

‘Un-slumping’ your anxiety with a walk

Dr Seuss seems to have something good to say about everything, including anxiety and depression.

And when you're in a Slump, you're not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

Dr Seuss, Oh, The Places You'll Go!

In the depths of my Slump, I cannot leave the house. Some days, I cannot leave my bed. Anxiety is a prison not of my own making, a chemical reaction racing through my body that will not respond to reason, logic or science. Other days it is a trickling undercurrent to my life; unseen but undermining everything. Anxiety is not a one size fits all type of illness, but whichever form it takes, it is always unwelcome, constantly distracting, and often debilitating.

Whenever I leave the house, I take my anxiety with me, so going for a walk should not be the first thing I think of as an aid to recovery. Life outside the comfort of my own four walls is challenging; within my space I have control – outside I have uncertainty and chaos. When you are in the midst of living with anxiety, stepping outside of the front door isn’t always at the top of your list, but, having taken a bit of a backwards step these last few months, coupled with the onset of the perimenopause and a huge weight gain over lockdown, I realised that I had to do something more than just relying on medication and CBT.

So why walk? Well, the science is there to show that walking helps in several ways to calm, exhilarate and distract the mind. It has huge beneficial effects on easing tension in the muscles, it can alter the negative chemistry in the brain, and it helps the amygdala to control the release of the adrenaline that causes the fight or flight desire. Exercise burns off that excess adrenaline pumping through you and it releases the happy hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, to balance the negative with some positive. And, of course, most simple of all, it distracts the mind from the hurly-burly undercurrents that the anxiety is stirring.

Of course, knowing all of this is only the beginning of the battle. Making the decision to start and actually doing it are not always done on the same day. Not always in the same week. Not always consistently. What you know you have to do and what you feel you are capable of doing are two different things.

The answer is to do what you can and let go of the guilt.

Going for that walk is about feeling better, not about being burdened by other people’s expectations. It’s about taking your time, finding your own pace and exploring your own route. It’s about being comfortable with where, when and for how long you walk. For some it is the local park for social company and distraction, whereas, for me, it is a remote footpath and open countryside for seclusion. I began by aiming to take the dog to the local field for thirty minutes on a Tuesday. It wasn’t really much of a walk (I spent most of my time throwing the ball around) and by the second Tuesday I was already buckling, finding as many excuses as possible not to go. But now I walk three days a week, yes, slow and plodding, but exploring the woods, clambering over stiles and crossing fords. 

There is something fantastically liberating about standing on top of a hill being battered by the wind – my anxiety is still standing there next to me, worrying about what is going to happen if another walker appears, but sometimes, just for a few seconds, it shuts up and just looks at the view.

Of course, not only where, but also if, I go is dependant on how I am feeling . Brisk regular exercise is said to produce the best results, but that isn’t always possible. Some days it is just a big, fat no. I try to do what I can do, even if it is as simple as a walk around the garden. If that is all my anxiety is letting me do today, then I take what it is offering. I hope that I am growing braver and stronger and although I take a risk every time I leave the house that today will be the day that it all comes crashing down on me, I try to carry the positive experiences with me.

I have also dipped my toe into the world of mindfulness. I try to focus on 5 things that I can see, 4 things that I can touch, 3 things I can hear, 2 things I can smell and 1 thing that I can taste. It can be tough going but, when I get it right, each helps to ground me in the moment. Walking helps. I get to try different things every day – the view from the hill, the sound of the birds, the feel of the path beneath my feet today; the closeness of the woods, the sound of the stream, the smell of the undergrowth tomorrow. The change in the weather brings different experiences – snowy days are one of my favourites.

I’ve also embraced distraction in the form of photography, but what started as a need has turned into something fun and rewarding. I concentrate on what I can see through the lens of my camera (or mobile phone) and just for a moment the sound of the anxiety rattling in my head is gone. It makes me look up and around me, challenging one of my key coping mechanisms (to keep my head down in case I am forced to make eye contact with anyone) and it takes me out of what is in my head and look beyond. Some days I go big with landscapes across the valley, whilst the next it might be small with intricate studies of a moss on a stone wall. And of course, it gives me an excuse to have to stop when the hill gets too much for my tired little legs. 

So, I leave the last words to Dr Seuss, who always seems to know the right thing to say:

On and on you will hike, and I know you'll hike far - and face up to your problems whatever they are.

Dr Seuss, Oh, the places you'll go!
CategoriesBlogUncategorised

A weekend walking in the Holme Valley

Overshadowed by the nearby Peak District and Yorkshire Dales, we explain why the Holme Valley in West Yorkshire is the perfect place for a weekend away walking.

There are times of the year when the towns and hamlets of the Holme Valley are bustling centres of art, film, food and folk events. If it can have a festival, then Holmfirth will host it. But this is forgivable for a town trying to rediscover itself after the ending of its most famous inducement to visit: the British sitcom Last of the Summer Wine which was filmed there. Long gone are the Japanese and American tourists that flocked to see Nora Batty’s house and Sid’s Café (both of which still exist, like archaeological sites to a fading past), and a new type of visitor is emerging; the weekend walker.

That is not to say that this area has not seen walkers in the past; quite the contrary. But the nearby delights of the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales lures walkers away from this lesser known haven.

A stop in Holmfirth opens up an opportunity to discover a hidden gem of Yorkshire walking.  

Holme Valley
By Tim Green - Holmfirth, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52100053

The Holme Valley lies on the far reaches of the West Yorkshire border, where the county meets Derbyshire, and turns into the rugged terrain of the notorious Saddleworth Moor. At its head is Holme, the gateway to the Peak District National Park. At its end is Huddersfield. It cuts a sharp V into the landscape, with the River Holme on its floor, and the larger settlements of Holmfirth and Honley climbing up the hillside, narrow roads spreading out like veins on a leaf, houses left to chisel themselves into the inclines. Once a royal hunting ground, the area around them is rural, scattered with farms, whilst they themselves bear testament to the Victorian age which saw a plethora of mill building. That legacy still marks the valley and dominates the architecture, marred by the occasional twentieth-century mistake now earmarked for demolition. 

Over the years the valley has been known as a hub for the early British film industry, the centre for saucy postcard production and the home of Fenella the tiger. Now it boasts a vineyard, a cider press, the Welly Wanging World Championship and one of the best cycle climbs in the country, featured in the Tour de France.

Walks flow out of Holmfirth in all directions, offering a variety of terrain and endurance levels, but always with a spectacular view as your reward. Flat walks are scarce without a drive, but they do exist if you know where to look: there is a small carpark at the head of Ramsden Reservoir, giving access to a flat walk to Riding Wood Reservoir and on to Yateholme, suitable for prams and sturdy wheelchairs.

Most walks from the town will involve some kind of ascent, but the severity of it depends on which route you take. The effort is worthwhile. Close to the town, the climb up through Wooldale to Holmfirth Cliff offers stunning views across the rooftops and a chance to boulder if you are so inclined. Other walks follow the River Holme downstream, meandering to Brockholes, Biggin, Thurstonland and Fulstone, following with lanes that have been used for generations to transport salt from Cheshire, stone from the local quarries and cloth from the many mills.

To the north of Holmfirth, are the two Thongs: the villages of Upperthong and Netherthong – and yes, on more than one occasion the names have appeared on national radio travel reports to great hilarity! In fact, they derive from the Old English: uferra þwang (upper strip of land) and neoðera þwang (lower strip of land). Come in June and you will be treated to the Welly Wanging World Championship, but for most of the year they each remain a tranquil hamlet where you are unlikely to receive the same welcome as John Wesley who recounted in 1757: ‘The men, women and children filled the streets and seemed just ready to devour us’. Weave through the old part of Netherthong village to find the cider press, complete with café and shop, and follow the winding paths, bridleways, woodland tracks and roads lined with dry-stone walls to Wolfstone Heights. For some the journey will take an hour, for others it may take the whole day, following the various routes out as far as Honley and back.

Holme Valley
Holme Valley

This land is the green fields of sheep farming, but look up the valley towards the Peak District and the place can seem barren and bleak. The area is rich in reservoirs (Digley, Bilberry, Ramsden, Riding Wood, Brownhill and Yateholme), built to serve the sixty or so textile mills that sprang up along the length of the valley below. Some have carparks, circular routes and picnic tables, attracting day trippers and families, becoming go-to places when the days are warm. Go further afield and the world is transformed. Carved into the landscape, the reservoirs present a diverse array of paths that twist down into the woods and up onto the bleak tops giving stunning views across the dappled landscape and down the valley.

The waters here have not always been so benevolent. In the early hours of 5 February 1852 the embankment holding up Bilberry Reservoir collapsed. The 81 people (sources are confused as to the exact number) who died that night were the victims of neglect; a spring which had been discovered when building the foundations was ignored and simply plugged and buried rather than being diverted, and in the years that followed, as the wall began to slump, none of the wealthy millowners who benefitted from the reservoir would pay for its repair. The torrent of water that swept through the valley wiped out entire generations, from 2 month old George Hartley to 72 year old Joshua Earnshaw; in one house, ten members of the same family were all drowned. An almost forgotten plaque in the wall of the butcher’s shop on Victoria Street marks the flood height as it swept into Holmfirth – you have to look up to see it.

Turn away from the valley and you are greeted with the moor. This area offers challenges: walks that require confidence, fitness and stamina. They are not for the casual traveller. Holme Moss has become famous as one of the elite routes for cycle climbing, rising up out of the village of Holmebridge to a height of 524 metres. Following a map across the moor – there are very few tracks – leads to Black Hill, which, being 58 meters higher, pips its neighbour as the highest point in West Yorkshire. But only just; you are now in the Peak District, sat on the border with Derbyshire, although until 1974 the hill had been part of Cheshire. Once black as the name suggests, it has been rewilded, bringing back mountain hares, grouse and short-eared owls to the once barren and boggy plateau. From other directions you can reach the summit via the Pennine Way, but whichever route you take, the panorama remains spectacular, with a view of Pen-y-ghent in the Yorkshire Dales on a clear day.

Holme Valley
Black Hill with the debris of the Sabre Jet. By Mick Melvin, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9117039

The south-east side of Holme Moss bears witness to its darker side. Remains of a US B-24H Liberator aircraft that crashed here in 1944 killing nine of her 10-man crew can still be seen. She had been on a test flight and, in poor weather conditions, the pilot flew low through the valley, crashing into the hillside which rose up before him and bursting into flames. Black Hill had already claimed a victim in January 1940 when a Fairey Swordfish crashed, killing its pilot. Only four months later, the moor claimed another aircraft, this time a four man Handley Page Hampden returning from a bombing raid in Germany, its unused bombs exploding on impact. The final tragedy occurred to the east of Black Hill in 1954 when a Sabre jet was undergoing a test flight before being transferred from the RAF to a NATO ally. Its pilot was also killed.

Come back down into the valley and normal tourist adventures are possible. A stroll around the town will take you past the old railway station, closed as part of the Dr Beecham reforms, the alms houses erected as a result of the devastation left by the floods and a 16th century gaol. There is also the building which once housed the Holmfirth Film Studios, a successful silent-era movie company that made films such as The Kiss in the Tunnel, Ladies’ Skirts Nailed to a Fence, Paula and Winky Causes a Smallpox Panic. This is somehow appropriate for Holmfirth – in Old English the word Holme means Holly and the word Firth means wood! The annual film festival is a reminder of what could have been. There are cafes, restaurants and independent pubs for refreshment, and a concert venue that still has the power to pull in some big names (the Nashville band Hayseed Dixie describe it as one of their favourite places to perform). Time your visit well and you can enjoy the festival of folk in May, the arts festival in June, art week in July, and the food festival in September. And, of course, there is still Sid’s Café and Nora Batty’s house.

Holme Valley Britain
All photographs by Samantha Arrowsmith unless otherwise stated.
CategoriesHollywood

Robert Donat: an actor worth remembering

In the 1930s and 40s, Robert Donat was one of the biggest stars in British cinema and a household name, but for the actor himself, it was always a tussle between film and stage.

The 1939 Oscar for best actor was expected to go to Clarke Gable for Gone with the Wind unless James Stewart pipped him to it for Mr Smith Goes to Washington. In fact it would go to neither. In front of an astounded audience, the British actor Robert Donat was named the winner for his portrayal of an aging headmaster in the sentimental classic, Goodbye, Mr Chips.

Any other year and the award may not have been such a shock. Afterall, Donat had been nominated the year before for his role in The Citadel, and he was already a major star both in Hollywood and Britain with hugely successful films under his belt, such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Count of Monte Cristo and The 39 Steps.

But, in truth, his career as a cinema legend had come about more by chance than design.

Robert Donat

'The foundation of my whole creative life'

By the time Donat was 12 in 1918, cinema was still a fledgling industry and the young boy’s passion had already been caught by the theatre. His first headmaster had noticed and encouraged it, and at home he would stage productions in the garden shed with his elder brother John. Yet, the dream of a life on the stage was overshadowed by Donat’s circumstances. As a working class boy from the outskirts of Manchester, he not only had a strong Lancashire accent punctured by a severe stammer, but he came from a family without any connection to vaudeville or the theatre and whose future lay as farmers in Canada.

A visit that year to see James Barnard’s recital of A Christmas Carol in nearby Rusholme changed everything for Donat. Having watched the concert, he now knew what he wanted to be and he persuaded his ever-supportive parents to send him for elocution lessons with Bernard, a professor at the Leeds College of Music.

James Bernard
James Bernard

But Bernard was far more than an elocution teacher. As a once aspiring actor himself, he incorporated stage craft, projection and articulation into his approach to cure the boy of his stammer. Donat himself later reflected that the lessons had set ‘the foundation of my whole creative life and the irremovable and irreplacable [sic] rock on which my career was built’. Recitals and poetry performances formed a big part of Bernard’s methodology, developing Donat’s already present love of acting. But it was an old-school form of acting, born from theatre and Shakespeare rather than Chaplin and Keaton. ‘My elocution teacher in Manchester,’ Donat recalled ‘was always reminding me to “remember the bloke at the back who had paid his tanner,” and I have never forgotten it’.

It was a slow process. Donat was still in need of lessons three years later when he left school, and despite his brothers having all emigrated to Canada (his parents would follow them in 1928), he stayed in the UK, taking a job as Bernard’s secretary to pay for them. He gradually perfected his delivery, lost both his stammer and accent, learnt projection and annunciation and developed the voice that would become his trademark. Bernard’s connections with the theatre also gave Donat the route he needed in to that world. Years later, he would honour his teacher and mentor, recalling that ‘whatever success I may have gained has been entirely due to James Bernard, my elocution teacher in Manchester, who taught me all I know. He pushed me into my first stage job, and has always given me every possible help a man could give’.

'The most graceful actor of our time'

Donat was now on the road to becoming a professional actor but it was the theatre rather than films that had captured his attention. In 1921, at the age of sixteen, he debuted on the British stage at Birmingham’s Prince of Wales Theatre as Lucius in Julius Caesar, and three years later he joined Sir Frank Benson’s prominent Shakespearean company. For the next four years he perfected his skills, graduating from roles such as ‘a lord’ in As You Like It, to the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear and both Sebastian and Ferdinand in The Tempest.

Whilst his experience grew, Donat now made one of the most important decisions of his career. Rather than just settling for working with Benson’s company, he used the breaks in his nationwide tours to keep in touch with provincial repertory theatre to expand his range of work. This brought him into contact with the great actor-managers of the age, such as Alfred Wareing at the Theatre Royal in Huddersfield, whose repertoire was known to be ambitious and challenging. 

Royal Theatre
Royal Theatre Huddersfield

Donat learnt all that he could, and in August 1928 he told his brother that he had decided that this was what he wanted to do, although he was still thinking about auditioning in America for talking pictures.

By the end of the month, however, thoughts of films were put aside when he began a contract at the Liverpool Playhouse followed by a move to Cambridge with his new wife, Ella Annesley Voysey a year later. He now had access to leading roles such as in Bernard Shaw’s The Admirable Bashville and Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, and in 1931 he had his first successful appearance on the London stage in Precious Bane followed by an acclaimed run at the Malvern Festival.

Robert Donat
The Count of Monte Cristo

Donat’s foray into films in 1931 came as a means to supplement his stage income. His initial screen tests, as he himself later acknowledged, were poor: ‘In the old days when I was trying to break into films, I used to under-act for my film tests to such an extent that the result on the screen was entirely negative. In other words something that might have been lively and real and full size on the stage became inhibited and frustrated and frozen on the screen.’

 Ironically, for a man who had once had a speech impediment, it was his voice, and particularly his laugh, which the director Alexander Korda liked, so-much-so that he gave him a three year contract in 1932 on the basis of it.

At this time, he also began to suffer from asthma, the illness that would dog him for the rest of his life. It often flared up when he was particular stressed and it could sometimes become so bad that he was unable to work.

Theatre roles remained at the forefront of his work and he was appearing on stage in The Sleeping Clergyman when his breakthrough on screen came in 1933 with his fourth film, The Private Life of Henry VIII alongside Charles Laughton who described him as ‘the most graceful actor of our time’. Hollywood offers were to follow, but, disliking the American lifestyle, he returned to Britain after only making one, the highly successful The Count of Monte Cristo in 1934. Behind the protestations that Hollywood was ‘Bungalows, boulevards — the whole place is just an Ideal Home Exhibition’ lay a more important reason for his return: Donat was not prepared to give up his theatre work which the move to Hollywood would have forced on him.

The 39 Steps

It is natural that we automatically rue the films that cinema audiences lost out on because of this decision. Most famously is Captain Blood, the swashbuckling adventure that would have seen him fight Basil Rathbone and woo Olivia De Havilland. But if we lost him as Peter Blood we gained him as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps, the film he made instead. 

Arguably, this is the better outcome for us. Whilst both films deals with an innocent man caught up in something far bigger, Hitchcock’s masterpiece plays to Donat’s physical and acting strengths. Donat blends humour with high intensity and sexual chemistry and displays a sophisticated understanding of how to bring Hitchcock’s vison to life. 

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll
Robert Dpnat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps

He showed this when he reflected in 1938 that an actor ‘…must gauge his movements so that at the moment of the close-up, his head will be momentarily still and his eyes — almost imperceptibly — will flash their story’.

The film raised Donat’s profile even further: the contempory film critic Caroline Lejeune, noted that ‘Mr Donat who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order’. Others agreed and Korda put him in his next film, the same year that Donat finally achieved his dream of becoming an actor-manager in a London theatre.

The 39 steps

The finest actor

For the next twenty years Donat would work on both the screen and stage. Whilst Goodbye, Mr Chips in 1939 remains his cinematic highpoint, contractual difficulties, ill health, a lack of confidence and an inability to compromise on scripts would prevent us from seeing him in many more films. Although Hitchcock wanted him for three more of his movies (including as the mysterious and secretive anti-hero Max De Winter in Rebecca) Korda would not lend him again.

1953 saw one of his greatest performances, not on screen but on stage, in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral playing the doomed Archbishop Beckett. It was also his last appearance on stage.

Robert Donat
Robert in 1940

As his asthma became more debilitating, a hunt for a cure cost him most of his fortune, and oxygen had to be kept close by in case of a severe attack. He took some solace in radio and in recording poetry, using the voice and the skills that he had perfected with Bernard to continue to perform during his final years of illness, when acting had become almost impossible.

He died on 9 June 1958 at the age of 53. The cause of death was not asthma, but a stroke brought on by a brain tumour. He managed to complete his final scenes for The Inn of Sixth Happiness but he didn’t live to see it released five months later.

Between 1932 and 1958 Donat only made twenty films yet the legacy that he left marks him out as one of the most gifted and natural actors Britain has ever produced. He was also very much an actor’s actor: Peter Sellers said, ‘I think he is God’, whilst he was one of Judy Garland’s favourite actors. The American film director King Vidor, who led him to an Oscar nomination for The Citadel, declared: 

‘Bob Donat was the most helpful and co-operative star with whom I ever worked, as well as one of the finest actors.’

Further reading

For more information on Robert Donat take a look at

‘Performing Hitchcock’: Robert Donat, Film Acting and The 39 Steps (1935) by Victoria Lowe

The biography written for The Robert Donat family letters

Robert Donat by Jenny the Nipper and Gill Fraser Lee

CategoriesHollywood

The Golden Age of Cinema: Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton

I’ve known about the actor Charles Laughton for most of my life for films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Private Life of Henry VIII, but what I didn’t see until recently was just what a genius of an actor he was. When I was a teenage fan of classic Hollywood, I was too smitten with Errol Flynn and David Niven to give much thought to the slightly rotund and older Laughton, but now that I’ve matured, I’m far more appreciative of actors who were less traditionally handsome.

So I have revisited three of his key movies with fresh eyes.

Hobson's Choice (1954)

This was my first real encounter with Laughton. He plays Henry Hobson, owner of a Salford boot shop, alongside Brenda De Banzie as his eldest daughter and John Mills as his skilled bootmaker. My teenage-self loved the film, but Laughton was too old and cantankerous to ever rival Flynn. I enjoyed his part but simply saw him as the foil to his intelligent, enterprising daughter Maggie, who captured my imagination far more than her drunken father.

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton and Brenda De Banzie in Hobson's Choice

Rewatching the film recently, courtesy of Amazon Prime, was like an awakening. Laughton is an utter joy to watch; his performance is as large and pompous as his character, but woven through with clever, understated subtlety that makes Henry Hobson more than just a caricature. He lauds it over his children with a false bravado that is both preposterously laughable and yet somehow effective. When he tells Maggie that she is too old to marry he is cruel, repulsive and so very, very watchable.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

When this was recently shown on the BBC I thought I’d give it a watch. I’d seen it long ago, but had never really registered the glory of the performances in the twisting plot. Yet this is the film that has really changed my opinion of Laughton. He plays barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts, who takes on the seemingly unwinnable task of defending Leonard Vole (played by Tyrone Power in his final film) at his murder trial. When Vole’s wife (played by Marlene Dietrich in one of her greatest performances) becomes the witness named in the title, he sets about dismantling her testimony.

Laughton was third billing in this film behind the more charismatic Power and Dietrich, but he drives the film with his sublime performance. I found myself memorized by him.

Charles with his wife Elsa Lanchester

With complete ease, he demonstrates both his comic timing and his masterful acting, switching from cantankerous patient tormenting his long-suffering nurse (played by his real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester) to cunning barrister cross-examining his visitors with the glare from his monocle. His performance earned him a third Oscar nomination and it is more-the-pity that he did not win (it went to Sir Alec Guinness for The Bridge on the River Kwai).

Charles Laughton, John Williams and Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

It had been many years since I had seen this particular version of the (romanticised) life story of the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and seeing it again brought back a lot of memories of being a teenager watching classic movies on BBC2 on a Saturday afternoon. Though only three years older than Norma Shearer who played Elizabeth, Laughton stars as her father, the tyrannical and really rather creepy Edward Moulton-Barrett, who keeps his children oppressed through fear and guilt, refusing to let them marry or have a life of their own.

At the centre of the film is Laughton’s portrayal of a man incestuously in love with his daughter. Even for pre-code Hollywood it was risqué, but Laughton was able to portray Edward in his full obnoxious  glory through his majestic acting. He gives hints of what lies beneath Edward’s fatherly affections, using movement and body language to covertly display what could not be overtly said – as he himself said: ‘They can’t censor the gleam in my eye’. We are repulsed by Edward, willing Elizabeth’s escape, and yet he remains intriguingly hypnotic.  

Laughton with Norma Shearer and Maureen O'Sullivan in The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Although I still swoon over Flynn and Niven and forever will, Charles Laughton is now established as one of my favourite actors despite the fact that he felt that he had ‘a face like the behind of an elephant’. He is magnetic, powerful and absorbing. I could watch him all day and never get tired of the tiny, effortless nuances of his performances. Yet he doubted himself his whole life, considering himself a failure and pre-empting any upcoming performance with a surety that he would fail. Aged only 44 he described himself as a ‘tired old ham’, but you only have to watch a few of his films to know how untrue that was.