Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. For most of us, its celebration has a significance beyond the more commercial festivities of Christmas and Easter. Its purpose is so simple, we get together, share a supper, catch up with each other’s news and express gratitude for our blessings. There’s an easy, down-home informality about Thanksgiving that’s so different from the fixed traditions of the religious occasions, and from the incessant merchandising that precedes them.
But all three events provide us with a special bonus: a national holiday, and the opportunity for family and friends to take time off and travel from near and far to be together, and to indulge in that very human blessing, real, live conversation around the dinner table. No need for phones, no need to text, just the opportunity to listen and respond, to agree or disagree, when the dialogue gets going.
And so it was for us the other evening in our own Thanksgiving celebration. The topics ranged from politics to pensions, with a chortle or two on the latest antics of that dyed blond buffoon who is fronting the right wing drive to the U.S. presidency, in an election that’s providing mean-spirited entertainment to the rest of the world.
But then we touched on the Royals, and the recent visit of William, Kate and their children to our province. There was no need for any of us around the table to challenge the relevance of a subsidized monarchy, we had had that conversation years ago and agreed to disagree. No, we talked about their impact in today’s news stew, which predictably bubbled over with the adulation normally reserved for screen, sports and other entertainment celebrities.
We agreed that the Windsors are an attractive couple, and their children are like most kids everywhere, cute, and ever curious. But the real centre of focus is the duchess, and it’s been that way ever since Kate, a commoner daughter from a working family, surfaced on the royal scene a few years ago.
She has quickly become a fashion icon, a boon to the British garment industry, and in motherhood a role model for millennium women on a global scale, with her big smile and latest outfits gracing the front covers of umpteen magazines, newspaper articles and TV clips.
Her husband is sometimes in the picture, but hardly noticed. The focus of universal popular interest is usually his wife. And she’s much more photogenic.
By the time dessert arrived at our table we were comparing William’s lot with that of his father Charles, who had earlier been faced with the task of sharing the royal stage and keeping up with his bride Diana, the most adored princess in the world. He dismally failed that task, pointedly neglected her and continued to take refuge in the company of his mistress from earlier days.
We fondly remembered that Diana’s star blazed brightly. The public adored her, empathized with the caring and rather reckless roles she chose to play and castigated the family she had married into. The aloof, unbending inner circle around the sovereign tried to ignore her. Any hint of further scandal was anathema to them, because in recent years they’d had enough to deal with from other members of the clan.
On the sad day of Diana’s untimely death the monarchy’s reputation plunged. The world mourned the passing of their favourite, billions of viewers watched the farewell funeral ceremonies and newspaper cartoonists had a cruel field day at Charles’ expense.
The British public seemed finally to have lost faith in the imperial crown. The demand for its dissolution and the choice of a less expensive, non-titled ruling clique was seriously bandied about and debated.
But a strong, resolute woman faced this new challenge. She had weathered tougher times in years gone by, one of which she was to ruefully label her annus horribilus! With dogged determination Queen Elizabeth, until then the most respected head of state in the world, knew what she had to do and methodically set about rebuilding the reputation and role of the royal family. Thanks to her untiring leadership and example, (she’s now in her 90s), the monarchy today is again secure, popular and accepted as relevant by a majority of subjects in the United Kingdom.
So, by the time that our coffee arrived, it was agreed around the dinner table that I should find some documented evidence and write a few lines about the famous women in bygone days who had similarly outshone their husbands, whether they’d been emperors, kings, pharaohs, or merely tribal chieftains.
So I opened some books, Googled a while, and discovered that history is replete with tales of bold women who made a lasting name for themselves, while their royal partners have long since been forgotten.
Their stories are worth retelling, and there’s room for a couple of them in this month’s column, so here goes.
The woman whose beautiful image is the star attraction in the Berlin Neues Museum, captivated the heart of Egypt’s pharaoh Akhenaten, when he first set eyes on her 34 centuries ago. Nefertiti was in her mid-teens and she was a welcome addition to the royal harem.
She quickly rose from concubine to queen. Her education and intellect proved indispensable to her husband in his determination to change the country’s worship of many gods, to virtually one only, his favourite deity: Ra, the Sun God. A whole new city was built in Ra’s honour and the pharaoh showed his love, respect and appreciation of Nefertiti’s contribution to this cause by endowing her with a second name, Neferneferuaten. Up ‘til then, only kings were allowed two names, so his consort was recognized and honoured as joint ruler of Egypt.
Historians believe she continued to rule long after her husband’s death, though she used a male name to consolidate her status. We know that she was a great beauty because her effigies have been unearthed by archaeologists over the years. But the one that caught international attention was a magnificent 3,000-year-old bust of the queen, discovered in a buried workshop by German diggers in 1912.
They secretly smuggled it out of the country and 12 years later, in 1924, revealed their treasure to the world. The Egyptian government was naturally incensed at this act of piracy and demanded its return. And they still haven’t stopped asking for Nefertiti’s repatriation. But there she is today, in solitary splendour, her armoured glass museum case surrounded by a room totally devoted to her memory, protected by 21st century security.
Despite countless digs and much argument, no trace has yet been found of Nefertiti’s tomb, but a news item the other day caught my eye. A British Egyptologist, using the latest infrared thermography, is convinced he has discovered a hidden room behind Tutankhamun’s magnificent burial chamber, which was opened and found intact in the 1920s. The young king was Nefertiti’s son-in-law, so this untouched space could conceivably contain the mummy of his illustrious relative, Egypt’s long lost queen.
Now, I have enough space to mention another historic royal, who is famous, not so much for her beauty, but for her countless lovers and her considerable achievements in a 34-year reign as the greatest Russian czarina. Sophia was a German princess born in 1729, and an arranged marriage at 16 with Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne, launched her into imperial high society, rife with riches, but supported by a state where abject poverty was the lot for most of her lowly subjects.
It was not a happy marriage. Sophia changed her name to Catherine and her religion to Russian Orthodox, but Peter preferred to largely ignore her and play all day with his toy soldiers. He became czar in 1762 and six months later an uprising, led by his disenchanted wife, forced him off the throne. He later died in prison. Poisoned perhaps.
Catherine now controlled this immense realm, and when she wasn’t rolling around with one of her officers, she ruled with an iron hand. Rebellions were mercilessly suppressed, but during her enlightened reign she introduced much new thinking into what was largely a very backward country.
Education was encouraged. So was science, religious tolerance and an appreciation for the cultures of her European neighbours. Her art collection was incredible, and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum today bears witness to her zeal for collecting masterpieces.
Although Catherine sympathized with the poor, she did very little to help them. And when she died at 67, she left behind a reputation for imperious rule, matched by a taste for luxurious living and a healthy appetite for the joys of sex. The chroniclers of her life seldom let us forget that priority.
So that’s it, the tale of two bold, royal women, who out-grew and out-shone their husbands. We see that history has a habit of repeating itself, even today. That’s what makes it so very interesting, and we’ll stroll down that lane together, in my next column.
» Bill Greenwell prospered in advertising for 40 years in the U.K. and Canada. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.