The Last Letter


Marie Antoinette

Several years ago I read Évelyne Lever’s, “Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France.”  Her writing style was compelling, transporting me back in time, enabling me to pass through the magnificent entrance of Versailles into the living quarters of the iconic Queen.  Under Évelyne Lever’s meticulous research and detail, Marie Antoinette came alive – it was as if I was sitting beside her during all of the transitions.  I confess that I broke down and cried when I read the last letter that Marie Antoinette wrote to her sister-in–law,  Princess Elizabeth (Louis XVI’s sister) at 4:30 a.m. on October 16, 1793, just hours before her execution.  The letter was given to Robespierre.  Princess Elizabeth never received the letter and met her fate the next year.

This is an excerpt of that letter that has been translated into English.

“It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time.  I have just been condemned, not to a shameful death, for such is only for criminals, but to go and rejoin your brother.  Innocent like him, I hope to show the same firmness in my last moments.  I am calm as one is when one’s conscience reproaches one with nothing.  I feel profound sorrow in leaving my poor children: you know that I only lived for them and for you, my good and tender sister.  You who out of love have sacrificed everything to be with us, in what a position do I leave you!  I have learned from the proceedings at my trial that my daughter was separated from you…Let my son never forget the last words of his father, which I repeat emphatically; let him never seek to avenge our deaths….”

Marie Antoinette lived during a time of economic uncertainty and political instability. During her last years, she became the symbol of lavish wealth and tyranny.  Even so, I often think of her as a women imprisoned, her children taken from her, waiting to rejoin her husband.

February 10th & 11th, 1840



Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were married on February 10th, 1840, in the Chapel Royal.

In the early morning, Prince Albert received a note folded in billet form from Queen Victoria.

Dearest, -…How are you to-day, and have you slept well?  I have rested very well, and feel very comfortable to-day.  What weather! I believe, however, the rain will cease.

Send one word when you, my most dearly loved bridegroom, will be ready.  Thy ever-faithful,

Victoria R.

After the wedding breakfast at Buckingham Palace the young couple drove to Windsor, returning to London on the February 14th, a fitting way to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day.  Even so, Queen Victoria wasted no time in writing a letter to the Leopold I, King of the Belgians, her maternal uncle and adviser. Her letter, dated February 11, 1840 at Windsor Castle, illustrates her happiness in the marriage he helped arrange.

“My dearest Uncle, – I write to you from here, the happiest, happiest Being that ever existed.  Really, I do not think it possible for any one in the world to be happier, or as happy as I am.  He is an Angel, and his kindness and affection for me is really touching.  To look in those dear eyes, and that dear sunny face, is enough to make me adore him.  What I can do to make him happy will be my greatest delight.  Independent of my great personal happiness, the reception we both met with yesterday was the most gratifying and enthusiastic I ever experienced; there was no end of the crowds in London, and all along the road.  I was a good deal tired last night, but am quite well again to-day, and happy…

My love to dear Louise. Ever your affectionate,

Victoria R.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had 21 happy years together.

Naples & A Wedding


“First gain the victory and then make the best use of it your can.”

Horatio Nelson


Emma was famous. Sir Charles Greville did not relish being the “lesser half” of a power couple.  He was also in need of a huge injection of funds.  Ever a schemer, his goal was simple.  He would marry Henrietta Middletown, an eighteen-year-old rich heiress.  As well, he was newly involved with  Lady Craven, a playwright and daring socialite. The Emma “problem” would be easily solved by persuading his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples, to take Emma on as a hostess for his Naples home, known for its excellent hospitality and elegance.

Sir William, fourth and youngest son of Lord Archibald Hamilton, was the Envoy Plenipotentiary to Naples. Known for his extravagant lifestyle, he mingled with the leading aristocrats in England.   A recent widower, he had returned to England to finalize his late wife’s estates.  By all accounts, his marriage was happy and successful, even though his late wife suffered from bouts of depression.

Emma was enchanting, Sir William acknowledged. And he did have need of someone to organize his household and arrange for the elaborate banquets and soirées.  Keeping the childish King Ferdinand of Naples and his demanding Queen Maria Carolina (sister to Marie Antoinette) was a difficult task at best. Emma would be ideal. Alas, poor Emma did not know of the secretive machinations that swirled about her.  Sir Charles simply lied. A short holiday to Naples, she was told, along with a promise that he would come for her.

Sir Charles, in his devious and selfish way, released Emma. Naples embraced Emma with open arms and showered her with fame, fortune and title.   Yes, she was distressed by Sir Charles’s rejection, but she grew to love Sir William.  They were married on September 6, 1791.    She became Lady Hamilton.

The French Revolution, which began in 1789, was creating instability and alarm in all of Europe.  Before long, Lady Hamilton would be embroiled in the politics of Kings and Queens.

“Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.” 

Anaïs Nin

The Legend of a Lady


“She knew that this was happiness, this was living as she had always wished to live.”
 Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

 Safe Harbour

The setting: Cornwall, England in the 16th century.

The players: Sir John and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew

The plot:  Lady Elizabeth vs. Queen Elizabeth I

The Killigrews were rich members of the English aristocracy.  In their spare time, they were pirates who used their distinctive coastal location to operate as outlaws.  From their prestigious home, Arwenack House, which overlooked Falmouth Harbour, Sir John directed fleets of pirates. Even Queen Elizabeth I kept her distance, turning a blind eye to their family business on the condition that they never bothered anyone who had her ear.

The Spanish ship, Marie of San Sebastian, was caught in a tempestuous gale one fateful day in 1581.  The crew barely managed to navigate the ship to safety in Falmouth harbour.  The Killigrews, observing the storm battered ship, rushed to their assistance.  They magnanimously offered the captain and his first mate all the comforts of their home.  Indulged by Lady Elizabeth’s hospitality, the captain decided to prolong their stay for a few days.

Meanwhile, Lady Elizabeth was assessing the ship and its contents to determine whether it was worth looting. Yes indeed, it was!  She set her plan into action.  One evening, while Sir John entertained their guests, Lady Elizabeth rounded up her staff, which doubled as her pirate crew, and led them down a secret tunnel that connected the house to the shore.  The noise of the gale force winds allowed them to take the ship and unload the cargo.  Lady Elizabeth returned home while her pirates sailed the ship out of sight.   The operation took less than two hours. The Spaniards suspected the Killigrews, but no one could prove anything.  The Queen overlooked this episode.

The Queen did not overlook the 1582 incident, however, involving the German merchant ship loaded with gold, silver, and jewels.  Lady Elizabeth could not resist the temptation.  How was she to know that the Germans had close ties to Queen Elizabeth I?  The fury of a Queen came down on Lady Elizabeth.  Alas, she was to be hanged.

There is a happy ending.  The Queen changed her mind.  The sentence was changed to imprisonment.  And before long, Lady Elizabeth was set free.  She rejoined her husband at Arwenack House. Whether they continued their pirate ways, is unknown.  One thing is certain; her legend still lives on… 

“This is our day, our moment, the sun belongs to us, and the wind, and the sea, and the men for’ard there singing on the deck. This day is forever a day to be held and cherished, because in it we shall have lived, and loved, and nothing else matters but that in this world of our own making to which we have escaped.”
Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek

All The Queen’s Men


“If England had not used the services of privateers and pirates during its long struggle with Spain, there is some likelihood that people today in North America would be speaking Spanish rather than English.” 
Robert Earl Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate

A Ship

They were called the “Sea Dogs.”

Queen Elizabeth I was surrounded by dynamic, brilliant, intrepid and creative men.  They were her privateers, independent, but used as an auxiliary navy to plunder Spanish ships. If the Spanish took exception, the Queen could deny that she had any hand in the mischief.

Sir John Hawkins, the leader of the Sea Dogs, engaged with the Spanish ships in the Caribbean. His résumé included slave-trading pioneer, treasure-hunting pirate, high-ranking naval commander, spy and war hero.  He reformed the navy and improved the pay and conditions for sailors.

Sir Francis Drake, sea captain, slaver, and politician, is usually remembered as a hero, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth, who awarded him with a knighthood.  He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588.  On the other side of the channel, the Spanish knew him as the ferocious pirate, El Draque – the Dragon.  Perhaps his greatest feat was to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Sir Walter Raleigh was destined to be one of the most celebrated figures in British history. A privateer, explorer, poet and favourite of the Queen, he was the first to attempt colonization in  North America.  He was unsuccessful, but his efforts opened the way for others to follow.

With the passing of Queen Elizabeth I, peace was made with Spain.  The Sea Dogs continued their piratical activities on the Barbary Coast, to the embarrassment of the English Crown.  The time of the Privateers was coming to an end.  Once the force behind British imperialism and expansion, they became, in the end, a threat to national security.  As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil.”

“And what is the sea?” asked Will. 
“The sea!” cried the miller. “Lord help us all, it is the greatest thing God made!”
Robert Louis Stevenson


I Want A Piper, Too!


“We have heard nothing but bagpipes since we have been in the beautiful Highlands and I have become so fond of it that I mean to have a Piper, who can if you like it, pipe every night at Frogmore.”

Queen Victoria, in a letter to her mother.

Braemar Gathering. Scotland

Braemar Gathering. Scotland

The tradition of The Queen’s Piper dates back to Queen Victoria.  In 1842, Queen Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert traveled to the Scottish Highlands.  It was her first visit; and like all those who see the Highlands for the first time, she was overwhelmed with the grandeur of the northern countryside.  The Royal Couple were the guests of the Marquess of Breadablane at Taymouth Castle which is located north-east of the village of Kenmore, Perth and Kinross.   The Marquess happened to have her own personal bagpiper, who was pleased to play for Queen Victoria.  From that moment on, Queen Victoria was determined to have one for her household.

One year later, in 1843, Angus MacKay became the first personal Piper to Queen Victoria.  Piper MacKay was a famed composer of pipe music who had published a volume of reels and strathspeys and a collection of piobaireachd music.  Piobaireachd is an art music classical genre associated with the Great Highland Bagpipe.

Victoria wasted no time in directing Piper MacKay in his duties. The bagpipes were heard every day after breakfast, at balls and other special events.   Piper MacKay was there at the formation of a cairn to honour Queen Victoria’s acquisition of Balmoral Estate in 1852.   It was the event of the season.  Queen Victoria noted that, while the cairn was being constructed, “some merry reels were danced on a stone opposite”.

Queen Victoria died in 1901.  At her funeral two personal pipers were present in the first stage of the procession.  Queen Victoria’s desire for the music of the bagpipes has become a tradition for successive monarchs of the British throne.

In 2008, my family traveled to Scotland.  A highlight was to attend the Braemar Gathering, when The Queen made a personal appearance.  Now, five years later, her son, HRH Prince Andrew attended the 150th annual Victoria Highland Games.  Queen Victoria seemed to understand that the world needed the Highland Bagpipes.

But there is much more to the bagpipe story…


Caber Tossing, Braemar Gathering

Caber Tossing, Braemar Gathering