Relationships between sisters can be complicated – often extremely close, yet often fraught with rivalry. Relationships between Royal sisters take these dynamics to an extreme, where not only are you part of a family but part of an institution. This can make the relationship political as well as emotional – and the consequences can be extreme.
In our brand new collection of documentaries, A Tale of Two Sisters, our expert historians and Royal enthusiasts look at some of the most high-powered and dramatic siblings throughout British history – with three documentaries examining the relationships between Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary, Elizabeth I and her sister Mary, and Elizabeth II and Margaret.
The 20th century brought with it two members of the Royal Family who have been more heavily scrutinised, photographed, filmed and gossiped about than any Royal before them, and their relationship and their differences were very much a product of the changing world.
Queen Elizabeth II was forced into a regal balancing act, having to weigh up the modernisation of the monarchy against preserving the traditions of which she was a symbol; it was an era of rapid change in every field, and the burden of Elizabeth’s reign was adapting an extremely inflexible institution in the hope that it might remain relevant.
Princess Margaret had no such concerns, however. Instead, she was free to embrace the excitement of the 20th century, to become a defining personality in what it meant to be a celebrity in an increasingly technological age – and this meant foregrounding glamour and character in a way that both courted and dazzled the public eye.
One sister was reserved and proper, the other lively and controversial. One sister was the anchor of a Commonwealth of nations, the other a figure searching for purpose in life. Yet these differences are more fundamental than simply being shaped by their roles and their environment; the sisters were remarkably different dating all the way back to their childhood.
Margaret was reputedly spoilt during her youth – allowed to carry on as she pleased – while Elizabeth was the more serious and studious of the two, particularly once Edward VIII’s abdication placed her directly in line to the throne. Marion Crawford – the sisters’ governess – had even taken measures to try and have their friends only invite Elizabeth to their parties, as she was well aware that Margaret would more than likely become the centre of attention if she went too. Elizabeth didn’t begrudge her sister’s social skills, however; instead, she found parties much easier with Margaret present.
This highlights the fact that – more than any of the other pairs of sisters in this series – Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret’s relationship was one underpinned by love, and bolstered by their complementary differences. Even when constitutional difficulties placed them at odds with one another, their love remained, allowing them to forge very different paths through life while always remaining close.
Find out how these sisters were two sides of a coin, and why King George VI saw Queen Elizabeth II as his ‘pride’, and Princess Margaret as his ‘joy’ on True Royalty TV.
Two sisters, two queens – yet at first glance the daughters of Henry VIII could not be more different. Apart from the fact that there was a considerable age difference between them, the vastly oppositional nature of their upbringings would shape religious conflict for decades to come.
As daughter of Catherine of Aragon – the Spanish aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor – Mary grew up steeped in the Catholicism of Spain, the latest in a long line of highly educated women from Catherine’s family. Elizabeth, by contrast, was the daughter of Anne Boelyn, and as such grew up in Protestant England, a society that was by its very nature geared to look down upon Catherine of Aragon and her religion.
Historically, too, the half-sisters seemed destined to travel paths as divergent as possible; while Mary’s reign was famously brief, Elizabeth’s was long; Mary was allied to Spain, while Elizabeth’s greatest triumph came from defying Spain; one was reviled as ‘Bloody Mary’, the other hailed as ‘Gloriana the Virgin Queen.’ Indeed, Elizabeth was so successful in her concerted effort to erase Mary’s legacy from the history books that many now forget Mary was in fact the first crowned Queen of England.
Yet Elizabeth and Mary shared one glaring similarity that arguably may have united them more than any of the characteristics that set them apart: they were both women. In the context of patriarchal Tudor England, the significance of this could not be underestimated – both Elizabeth and Mary, as Queens, had to fight against the contemporaneous idea that women were ruled more by their emotions than by reason, and could never be as effective a ruler as a King.
Elizabeth seemed to recognise the parallel in their struggles, even learning from the mistakes of her older sister by choosing not to marry, having seen the difficulties that Mary’s union with Philip of Spain had caused during her reign. Elizabeth, some say, felt it would be stronger to stand alone, than to invite accusations of weakness that might result from her taking a husband.
This episode places one of the most dramatic sibling rivalries in history under the microscope, searching for the truth in how these two sisters legitimised the idea of a woman on the throne while overseeing one of the most fraught periods of religious conflict Britain has ever seen.
There are few more notorious names in English history than that of Anne Boleyn – and few who are more mysterious or disputed. In the five centuries since her passing, Anne Boleyn has been both lauded and denigrated, her every action has been interpreted and reinterpreted to establish her true place in the history of British Royalty. Was she a martyr, a schemer or a victim?
Widely denounced as a homewrecker and a fornicator, her detractors saw her as the woman who seduced Henry VIII and caused him to abandon the true religion, when he split from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England in order that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon.
Her sister Mary was even more mysterious – largely forgotten, but when spoken of dismissed as a fool and a woman of loose morals, but this reductive characterisation overlooks the true nuance of her personality. What is known, however, is that while Anne refused to become Henry VIII’s mistress while Mary did not, the former instead took the arguably somewhat more insidious route of securing a post as Catherine’s maid of honour.
The two sisters had a complicated relationship that combined hostility and love, bound to each other by living together in the court of a dangerous and powerful man. Their lives were shaped by ambition, power, lust and obsession – both their own, and that of the man who ruled over them. When these desires were at odds with one another, there were tremendous consequences.
Why did Anne and Henry banish Mary from the Royal Court in 1534? Why did Anne fall from favour with her husband, ending up tried for high treason and, ultimately, headless? Even some of the more basic aspects of Anne and Mary – down to what they looked like – is disputed. Discover the truth in this fascinating instalment of our new collection here.
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