Book Review: “The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France” by Eric Jager

If you are a lover of medieval history, you will really enjoy this book. This is storytelling at it’s best. Based on real events and the last medieval judicial duel to the death in France, the author gives deeply detailed insight into the personalities involved as well as information on the clothing, the armor, the horses, the castles and the lifestyle of ordinary medieval nobility and on the administration of law in medieval France. And if you have seen the movie, this will fill in some of the blanks from the screenplay. I can recommend both the book and the movie.

Book Review: “The Waning of the Middle Ages” by Johan Huizinga

Personal note: This book was on my shelf of my father’s extensive book collection and I remember being intrigued by it as a young child. Perhaps it was just the cover which probably had some Flemish piece of art on it. Or maybe my interest in the Middle Ages began at an early age. Whatever the case, I purchased a copy of it a while ago and recently read it.

In doing research in the reigns of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, this book always pops up as a reference. I had the impression the subject of the book was the Middle Ages in general but upon learning Huizinga wrote about Burgundy and France, it seemed like it was time to dive in. Huizinga states he set out to write about medieval art as the Middle Ages were transitioning into the Renaissance. But he discovered, in order to explain the art, he had to delve into the medieval mindset.

To my surprise, Huizinga gives a complete description of how medieval people viewed the world. The first chapter alone, titled “The Violent Tenor of Life” is full of erudite gems, acknowledging the contrasts between suffering and joy, adversity and happiness, in which every event and action is embodied in expressive and solemn forms to the dignity of ritual. Calamities and indigence were difficult to guard against. All things in life were proud and cruel at the same time and presented themselves to the mind in violent contrasts and impressive forms.

Huizinga talks of the uninterrupted spectacles of executions, the luxurious entries of princes, the jousting tournaments, the religious and spiritual processions, sermons of itinerant preachers, religious reverence and pomp and grandeur and the emotions and tears of public mourning. He discusses chivalry and courtly love, the poetry of the troubadours and writers, as well as the prose and the lives of the religious in monasteries and convents. The lords of the era lived a life of honor, revenge, pride and asceticism. The fashion of the times mirrored these values, with the long-pointed toes of shoes, sumptuous fabrics and furs and the high hennins and the shaved foreheads and temples of the women.

Religious thought is crystalized into images. The art of the era followed fixed principles, mostly religious and classical themes with a strict hierarchy. The only way an artist could put his personal touch to a painting was by adding specific and minute details in the background. The sculptors followed these same principles although they had less leeway in expressing themselves than the painters.

Dance of Death images

One chapter in particular I found fascinating: “The Vision of Death”. The words and sermons of preachers morphed into expressing themselves into the popular woodcut. An excellent of example would be Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Dance of Death” series of woodcuts from the early 1520’s. There were poems and treatises on expressing the violence of death, the putrefying corpse and details of decomposition. These were turned into paintings and sculptures, immortalized in memento mori and seen in cadaver monuments and images of the macabre dance.

Cadaver monument

Huizinga’s language and expression are exquisite. He distills the writings and art of the age into portraying the medieval mindset as the Middle Ages came to a close. Admittedly, if I had read this book ten years ago, it might not have made sense. But after studying medieval times for many years now, it all comes together in describing what I have learned. His words explain the hysterics of Margery Kempe in her autobiography. It clarifies why the people of England during the reign of King Henry VIII didn’t conceive of him as a monster. This book is a classic and should be read by anyone who aspires to learn about the Middle Ages.

Book Review: “Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen” by Giles Tremlett

The Freelance History Writer has previously reviewed two other biographies of Isabella of Castile:  Here and Here.

I’ve had this volume on my shelf for some time and having recently decided to do some research on Isabella, finally read it. Tremlett’s opening page has two quotes about this formidable queen. ‘No woman in history has exceeded her achievement’ from Hugh Thomas, “Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire” and ‘Probably the most important person in our history’ from Manuel Fernández Á lvarez, “Isabel la Católica”.

From the first page of this book, I was hooked. Tremlett gives us a well-organized and well-thought-out, chronological, presentation of Isabella’s life, from the reign of her father to her death. Isabella’s gutsy seizure of the throne after the death of her half-brother King Enrique IV had me on the edge of my seat. She quickly neutralized Enrique’s daughter Juana la Beltraneja to take power. It’s impossible to know if Juana was illegitimate or Enrique’s actual daughter but Tremlett makes a convincing case that she was legitimate.

Isabella’s first great political move was to marry Ferdinand of Aragon and unite their two kingdoms, even though they were ruled separately. The politics of the unification of Spain are complicated but Tremlett explains it well, telling us the good, the bad and the ugly about the rule of these two monarchs who formed an exceedingly effective partnership. He explains how Isabella ruled in a manner where she was loved and feared all at once, and does this without any judgements. There’s good information on her upbringing, her struggle to come to power, her ability to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors and her treatment of the Muslims and Jews, as well as the decision by both Ferdinand and Isabella to begin the Spanish Inquisition.

The author has a good section regarding the voyages of Christopher Columbus and other explorers promoted and sponsored by the Queen. He gives us the lives of the children of Ferdinand and Isabella. We can really get a glimpse of what her personality was really like and the dynamic of the entire family. Reading about her death and her spiritual and mental struggles is very touching. She died knowing the reign of her daughter Juana would not be successful. Tremlett manages to humanize Isabella.

While I can highly recommend all three of these biographies, Tremlett’s volume is not quite as academic in tone as Peggy Liss’ book and is somewhat more detailed than Downey’s. All three will give the reader a well-rounded view of Isabella of Castile, Europe’s first great Queen. I’m looking forward to reading Tremlett’s book about Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon.

Book Review: “An Unbroken Unity: A Memoir of Grand-Duchess Serge of Russia – 1864-1918” by E.M. Almedingen

Every now and then, it’s possible to find a book that inspires and moves you and this book did that for me. While reading a biography of Princess Alice, mother of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the author mentions her aunt, Grand-Duchess Elizabeth as having a profound influence on Alice with her foundation of a convent and nursing and feeding the poor. The author highly recommended Ms. Almedingen’s biography of Elizabeth and I was lucky enough to find a used copy of this book, published in 1964.

There are few books published on the Grand-Duchess. This author, of Russian, English and German heritage, spent some time in Russia before the first World War and had relatives and friends who knew the Grand-Duchess personally. This book is a biography but it’s in the style of a memoir and includes many first hand stories. The life of the Grand-Duchess is filled with happiness, hope and tragedy and these personal stories deepen the narrative.

Elizabeth was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her parents were Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse. Her sister was Alexandra, Tsarina of Russia, wife of Tsar Nicholas II. Indeed, Elizabeth was instrumental in her sister marrying the Tsar, something she may have later regretted. Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, an uncle of the last Tsar. It was a love match and a successful, though childless marriage, which ended when Serge was tragically assassinated.

Widowhood opened up an opportunity for Elizabeth to create a life of piety and charity. She grew up Lutheran in her home country but once in Russia, she came to love the Russian Orthodox church and converted. After careful consideration, she began wearing a habit and built a convent and community to nurse, feed and teach the poor in Moscow. This was a thriving community and did significant charitable work. It was most unfortunate that the Romanov dynasty’s fall and the rise of communism had a deleterious effect on the community and on the life of Elizabeth.

I’m very impressed with Ms. Almedingen’s writing. She has keen insight into Russian society at the turn of the century as well as in the mind and motives of the Grand-Duchess. Her personal stories are fascinating. This is a mindful, conscientious, and considerate recounting of the Grand-Duchess’ life. Almedingen obviously cares deeply about her subject. She has a couple of other books about the Russian Imperial family that I might need to look into.

Book Review: “Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I” by Stephen Alford

This book has been on my shelf for some time and I’ve finally had a chance to read it. My knowledge of William Cecil and his role in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign was moderate but I wanted to know more. He certainly loomed large as private secretary and as Lord Treasurer and it is clear his influence was paramount.

Alford had access to all of Burghley’s papers and this book is not really a standard biography. He concentrates on Cecil as a man with glimpses into Burghley’s personal life. There’s a good deal of information on Burghley’s homes of Cecil House on the Strand, Theobalds and Burghley house. Alford stresses how Burghley was a dynast and had a keen interest in genealogy and family trees. He kept meticulous records on every aspect of his life, personal and work related, leaving a large archive for his son Robert to utilize as a minister in Elizabeth’s government, as well as James I’s.

Alford gives lots of interesting details about what Cecil and his family ate, how he entertained the Queen when she visited, his interest in gardening, his illnesses and the hiring of doctors to treat him and the taking of the waters as a cure. The section of Cecil’s early life and his career in university is fascinating. Cecil’s family worked for the earlier Tudor monarchs and introduced William to his career in the government. Cecil worked for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I as well as Elizabeth. Contacts made when Cecil was in school served him throughout his life.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about this book is the intricate particulars of how Cecil strove to bring down Mary Queen of Scots. Alford tells us Cecil operated mostly with words and printed material. He had his own propaganda machine and intelligence network. Using these, collaborating with his protégé, Sir Francis Walsingham, they concocted a plot to implicate Mary Queen of Scots to kill Elizabeth and place herself on the English throne. This is really great stuff and worth the price of the book. For anyone with an interest in the life of William Cecil and intrigue at the Tudor court, I can highly recommend this book. A very enjoyable read.

Book Review: “Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister” by Heather R. Darsie

Anna of Cleves book cover

Everything you know about Anna, Duchess of Cleves, fourth wife of King Henry VIII, is incorrect. Even her name. She was called Anna, not Anne and was a Duchess in her own right. The author has found definitive, primary source, historical evidence that Anna’s birthday is June 28 (or no later than July 1), not September 22, 1515 as previously believed. Even the eventful first meeting between Anna and Henry didn’t go as previously advertised, according to the primary sources.

Darsie places Anna in the context of the Holy Roman Empire, German, and Low Countries history which explains why her marriage came about. She gives the background for the Von der Mark family and the various duchies that made up the patrimony of Cleves and tells how her brother Wilhelm inherited the Duchy of Guelders, thereby angering HRE Charles V and starting a series of wars. Thomas Cromwell’s fall from favor wasn’t based upon the failed marriage but had everything to do with his brokered alliance with the Low Countries and German princes and his failed foreign policy. He didn’t have the skill of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, to his own detriment.

Darsie uses her training as a lawyer to make convincing and cogent arguments that Anna’s reputation was besmirched, all in the name of obtaining an annulment of her marriage. Once it was determined the alliance with Cleves was no longer necessary, a secret commission was constituted to dissolve the union. Anna had no formal representation on this commission and it was in this covert context that Anna was declared ugly and sexually unattractive, all without her knowing.

Anna was fortunate in that Henry and his advisors wanted to keep the anger and tension with Anna’s brother Wilhelm to a minimum. Consequently, they made a generous offer to Anna of an ample income and the possession of several properties in England. She had no intention of going back to Cleves and enjoyed her life as a free woman, even if she was a little lonely. I can highly recommend this book. It should be the new definitive biography of Anna, Duchess of Cleves and required reading for lovers of Tudor history.

This is where Henry VIII may have found his arguments for annulling his marriage to Anna.

Book Review: “The Brothers York: An English Tragedy” by Thomas Penn

Penns brothers york book cover


Thomas Penn’s “The Brothers York:  An English Tragedy” is chock full of revelations.  His book on King Henry VII “The Winter King”details Henry’s creative accounting and this book does the same with King Edward IV.  Penn breaks down the inventive financing Edward IV engaged in to raise funds for the government and for himself.  Much of the money garnered by these methods went straight to the king’s chamber rather than the Exchequer.  The raising of bonds from nobles in exchange for good behavior was started during Edward’s reign and Henry VII just continued the practice.

Penn explains over and over again how Edward IV manipulated the inheritance laws to confiscate property from the nobility and in turn, give it to his brothers and most loyal followers.  This practice obviously did not endear Edward IV to the nobility.  These transactions caused resentment and anger toward the king, perhaps more so than his favoritism of the Woodville family.  And Penn, rightfully so, emphasizes that any gains made by the Woodville family only occurred at Edward’s pleasure.

The manipulation of the inheritance laws greatly concerned King Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence.  Before Edward married Elizabeth Woodville and had children, George was the king’s heir.  This went to his head, giving him a sense of entitlement.  George was aggrieved and angry with Edward for giving and taking away property and for the loss of his position as heir to the throne.  Foolishly, George rebelled against Edward, and we all know how this ended.

But to me, there is one startling revelation.  Penn really only hints at this and never comes right out and says it point blank.  Richard III was an alcoholic.  He mentions Richard was seriously drinking large quantities of wine after he became king.  This was so intriguing to me.  In his footnotes, he cites an article in an academic journal titled:  “Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III” written by four researchers from the British Geological Survey and from the University of Leicester.

They examined the bones of Richard III and concluded he was eating a diet of rich food and significantly increased his wine consumption during his years as king.  The scientific evidence suggests Richard was under great stress and drinking heavily.  In his case, it was easy to become king but not so easy to execute royal duties and remain king.  This goes a long way in explaining some of Richard’s behavior and decisions.

All the little intricacies and relationships between the three brothers and the courtiers and nobles of the court are examined intensely by Penn with extraordinary perception and discernment.  To me, studying the Wars of the Roses always made me uncomfortable because none of it made complete sense.  Penn’s insight into the character and machinations of Edward IV, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard III has really gone a long way toward explaining this decades long conflict.  It all becomes crystal clear and is pretty fascinating.  This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years.  I highly recommend it.


Book Review: “Charles II: King of England, Scotland and Ireland” by Ronald Hutton

Hutton Charles II book cover

This biography of the Stuart Restoration King Charles II was recommended by the author of another book I was reading for research.  He said it was the best biography on this king that he had found.  That was enough of an endorsement for me.

Mr. Hutton was a reader in History at the University of Bristol at the time of publication (1989).  This was ten years after Lady Antonia Fraser’s magnificent biography of Charles II was published.  Hutton’s book is completely different from Fraser’s although he gives her great praise for her work.  The difference is, Hutton relies entirely on primary sources to tell the story consisting mostly of letters.

This volume is an in-depth examination of the politics of the reign of Charles II, including Scotland and Wales.  While he covers the life of the king, it explains more about the men who surrounded him and helped him rule his three kingdoms.  If you are looking for personal details, Fraser’s book would be more relevant.  Hutton is looking for who surrounded the king, who gave him advice, and how did Charles make decisions.  The lives of the councilors can sometimes be as fascinating as that of the king.

This is not an easy read.  At times it was a little dry and some of the politics could be confusing.  It helps to have a working knowledge and background on the era.  But I found Hutton’s insight into the personalities of the king, queen, Charles’ mistresses and the men who surrounded him to be very absorbing.

The final chapter supplies the author’s conclusions upon the virtues, vices and achievements of Charles II.  He states he realized early on he was dealing with a legendary figure.  In constructing his view of Charles, he tried to use only what was said about him by his contemporaries and weed out the material that was apocryphal.  Hutton has done a remarkable job.  I now have an improved understanding of this king and his reign.



Book Review: “The Mistresses of Charles II” by Brian Masters

Masters Mistresses book cover


This book was published in 1979.  I had never heard of the author but his many works include books on a variety of topics including the aristocracy, French history, biography, positive thinking and serial killers.  The subject of this volume is four of the mistresses of King Charles II.

Charles was one of the most popular monarchs ever to reign in England and also one of the most amorous.  Masters says there is no way of knowing exactly how mistresses Charles had but he believes there were fifteen that were documented and known.  He says the four women covered in this volume were each in their own way important in the King’s life.  All the women had progeny by the king that left their mark on the aristocracy of Britain.

Lucy Walter was Charles’ lover in his adolescence during his early years in exile after the execution of his father King Charles I.  Their liaison didn’t last long but it produced a son named James whom his father elevated to the title of Duke of Monmouth.  Monmouth was the founder of the Dukedom of Buccleuch through his marriage to Anne Scott, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Buccleuch.  Charles’ most infamous mistress, Barbara Villiers was a fiery and avaricious beauty.  Charles elevated her to the title of Duchess of Cleveland and her illegitimate son by the king, became the first Duke of Grafton,

Charles’ final mistress was a Breton, Louise de Kéroualle.  She was introduced into the English court by King Louis XIV of France to act as a spy and further French interests.  She became Charles’ maîtresse-en-titre and was queen in all but name.  Louise became the Duchess of Portsmouth and her illegitimate son was the Duke of Richmond.  Charles’ most popular mistress was Nell Gwyn.  She was an actress who was witty, gay, fun and honest.  She was the Protestant mistress and her son became the first Duke of St. Albans.  That’s a portrait of her and her son on the book cover.

Other mistresses covered are Frances Stuart, Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Marzarin, and another actress Moll Davis.  I have to say this book is so well-written and such a fun read, I didn’t really want it to end.  Masters sticks to the subject matter and doesn’t get sidetracked in any way.  The lives of these women are fascinating.  I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: “Richer Than Spices” by Gertrude Z. Thomas

richer than spices book cover


The subtitle of this book is “How a royal bride’s dowry introduced cane, lacquer, cottons, tea, and porcelain to England and so revolutionized taste, manners, craftsmanship, and history in both England and America”.  How’s that for a long subtitle?  The book was published in 1965 by Alfred A. Knopf of New York.

Portugal was a pioneer in active exploration and trade since the fifteenth century when Henry the Navigator supervised and financed many men to find a passage around Africa to the “East Indies”.  This was a rather nebulous term that encompassed all of the area east of the continent of Africa all the way to China and Japan.  Many Portuguese had sailed to these areas and opened and manned factories.  These establishments would barter with the natives for whatever goods they had to offer and trade with them, bringing many new and exotic items to western and northern Europe.

By the seventeenth century, the newly restored Stuart king Charles II was looking for a bride.  Primarily for financial reasons, he settled on marrying Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of King John IV, the newly restored Braganza monarch of Portugal.  Catherine’s dowry was extremely lucrative for England.  It included an enormous cash payment of £300,000 pounds along with the ports of Tangiers and Bombay in India.  England was also given access to trade with other places in the world such as Brazil.

King Charles would eventually turn over Bombay to the commercial enterprise known as the East India Company.  EIC would use Bombay as a base to increase trade from India, China and the East Indies, bringing items such as cane, lacquer, cottons, tea and porcelain to Europe and England.  When Catherine arrived in England, she brought lacquered cabinets from Japan and introduced the drinking of tea for pleasure to the court.

Gertrude Thomas is an expert in antiques and furniture. She explains in this book how the dowry of Catherine of Braganza brought these different items to England and America and enhanced the quality of life for ordinary people.  For the most part, the people of England wore wool or linen from the Low Countries.  With the opening of trade with Bombay, brightly painted and affordable cottons began to arrive, giving people more options for clothing and household items.

Chairs were made of wood but with the introduction of cane, chairs became lighter and more decorative with woven cane used for the seat and backs of chairs.  Catherine’s Japanese lacquered cabinets were a sensation and these started to arrive in England for people to store their goods.  Tea, which had been used primarily for medicinal purposes, now became a drink for pleasure.  It began to be sold in coffee and tea shops and stores.  By the eighteenth century, the drinking of tea was totally ingrained in Britain as part of its culture.

The growth of the drinking of tea led to the increase in trade of porcelain from China.  The beverage needed a pot to hold the extremely hot water for steeping the tea.  The East India Company began importing porcelain and it grew in popularity.  Eventually paintings, vases, candlesticks and other items “Chinoise” became a part of decor and furniture in many households that could afford it.

Not only did this dowry result in an increase in trade of these items in England.  They also found their way to America.  As Thomas says, these items revolutionized taste, manners, craftsmanship and history.  The book is filled with illustrations and is prudently footnoted and includes a bibliography.  Thomas’ delight in her subject shines through and I found this book to be thought-provoking and educational.