Book Review: “Bloody Mary” by Carolly Erickson

This book was originally published in 1978 and then reissued in 1996. It was about that time I was reading whatever I could get my hands on by Erickson such as “Great Harry”, “The First Elizabeth”, “Mistress Anne” and “To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette”. I also read this book then and remembered how much I liked it. I decided to re-read it, something I don’t normally do but my reading list included three other biographies on Mary Tudor and I wanted to see how this one measured up to more recent historical research.

Erickson’s work has withstood the test of time quite well actually. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that of the four biographies I’ve read on Mary Tudor, this is the best. They all have their charms of course and each one has a different focus. There is so much information on the reign of Queen Mary I that the narrative is similar in all the bios in most respects. What sets this one apart from all the others is Erickson’s brilliant way of inserting little captivating tidbits of history and insight concerning the Tudor era. There’s a lot of social history here that draws in the reader.

There is some great medical information regarding the sweating sickness and the influenza that reared its ugly head in the last year of Mary’s reign and may have actually caused her demise. She gives us insight into the depredations of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and how it damaged the lives of the nuns, monks and ordinary people. There are descriptions of the burning of heretics and how there was court intrigue and open fighting, including murder between the English courtiers and members of King Philip II’s Spanish entourage. I also love the anecdote concerning Elizabeth Crofts and the “voice in the wall” that disparaged Mary’s Catholicism as well as her marriage to Philip and touted the superior qualities of the Princess Elizabeth, Mary’s sister and Protestant heir.

Erickson gives the best explanation yet for the justification of the burning of heretics during Mary’s reign and puts it into the context of Europe in the mid-sixteenth century. It wasn’t just a matter of religion. Heresy was an existential threat to the government itself. Add into this mix the influence of the Spaniards, the Inquisition and the influential men around Mary who wanted to prove themselves to be good Catholics (Reginald Pole, King Philip, etc.) and you have the perfect storm to create a climate of fear and death.

Erickson was certainly one of the earliest historians who tried to rehabilitate the reputation of Mary Tudor. She gives great insight into Mary’s personality, courage and fortitude. Mary had to navigate a very narrow path between being the first Queen Regnant and being a wife who was obliged to obey and relegate herself to her husband’s commands as all women were required to do during this era. Mary was continually surprising her councilors and demonstrated great bravery during the showdown with Northumberland over Lady Jane Grey and during the scary Wyatt Rebellion when the insurgents were right outside the castles walls. Mary stood her ground and refused to leave. As I say, this book has withstood the passing of time since its first publication. It is a great read and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Richard III: Brother Protector King” by Chris Skidmore

A friend on Twitter alerted me that Chris Skidmore was looking for people interested in reading his new book. After contacting him, he was gracious enough to send me a copy of the book and I’m very glad he did. It is outstanding and thought-provoking.

This is the third biography I’ve read about Richard III and by far the best. Skidmore has managed to produce a methodical and accurate analysis of the chronicles of the time, providing significant insight into the many complexities of Richard’s life. He also gives us a unique perspective on the political climate of the Wars of the Roses. Every controversy is covered here. While he may not implicate or exonerate some of the major characters, he explains what would have been believed at the time and how this made a difference in the actions taken. This is how Richard’s contemporaries would have viewed him.

The book has already been released in the UK and will be available in the US in April of 2018. There are beautiful color illustrations in the book as well as several maps and family trees. This is a measured and unbiased account of Richard’s life. It is thoroughly engrossing, riveting and impeccably researched. I had a hard time putting this book down and highly recommend it. This should become the new definitive biography of this controversial monarch.

Book Review: “The Myth of Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter

This is the third biography I’ve read on my list in doing research. While they have all been good so far, this is the best for several reasons. It is clear that Mary has been much maligned by the vicissitudes of history. She is hated and misunderstood and is best remembered for the burning of heretics during her reign, mostly due to the work of John Foxe and his “Book of Martyrs”. Porter does a masterful job of cutting through all the myths and gives us incredible insight into the personality of Mary and the circumstances of her time as Queen of England.

Ms. Porter gives us a vision of what Mary was thinking from an early age and how she was treated by her parents. In the beginning, Mary was considered a sparkling princess, given a household of her own, the best classical education and music instruction, beautiful clothes and jewels. Even though she was not in the presence of her parents for any extended period of time, she adored them. This made it all that much harder for her to accept the high intensity treatment by her father when Henry VIII repudiated her mother and demoted Mary’s status. For a long time, Henry didn’t acknowledge Mary as his heir. He finally did and then withdrew the endorsement.

Mary never recovered from the stress of her complete and utter submission to her father. She then spent several years in relative peace, keeping her thoughts to herself and out of trouble. When her brother Edward VI reigned, Mary was under pressure again. When he died, Mary faced her greatest challenge. There were those who put forth Jane Grey as Edward’s successor and Mary risked all to take the throne from Jane. It was a great triumph and showed Mary’s courage and tenacity.

Once Queen, Mary had many issues to contend with. Her council was always at odds. Her choice of husband didn’t go down well and her phantom pregnancies were highly unusual. Philip did treat her appropriately and with complete respect but left England as soon as he could. There were several rebellions against her but she rose to the challenge and deflected the danger. Her efforts to return England to the Catholic Church didn’t make much headway. The kingdom suffered from famine and pestilence in the last year making things that much more difficult for Mary. In the end, Mary herself succumbed to the rampant influenza.

I loved this book for the insight into Mary’s personality and Mary’s vision for England. Of the three books so far, Porter gives the best explanation of Mary’s persecution and execution of the Protestant martyrs, putting it into the context of what was happening in Europe at the time. She also explains how Mary paved the way for her sister Elizabeth, giving her a template and good foundation for her long reign. Porter goes a long way toward restoring Mary’s reputation as the first English Queen Regnant. This is a really balanced reflection on her accomplishments.

Book Review: “Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen” by Anna Whitelock

I’m in the midst of reading several biographies of Mary Tudor which I’ve had on my bookshelves for a long time. It is an interesting exercise to see how each writer views the subject and writes about her differently. I know I shouldn’t compare but it’s hard not to.

The first book I read was John Edward’s biography which is a more academic and scholarly book. While it gives good insight into Mary’s personality, Edward’s expertise in Spanish history gives the book more of an emphasis on her marriage to Philip II as well as her mission to return the English church to Catholicism. This book is much different.

Whitelock’s writing is fast, breezy and easy to read. It seems more like novel than an academic work. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just different. There is a great deal of documentation on Mary’s life. One advantage to this volume is the author uses the subject’s real words from the archives and manuscripts of the time. This gives the book a real immediacy and increases the intrigue. I like how she quotes letters and ambassador’s documents.

The book is divided into sections just as Mary’s life was delineated. John White, Bishop of Winchester gave the sermon at Mary’s funeral. He says of Mary: She was a King’s Daughter, She was a King’s Sister, She was a King’s Wife, She Was a Queen, and by the same title a king also. So Whitelock divides the book into sections based on these parts of Mary’s life. There is a family tree, a beautiful selection of color photos and an extensive bibliography in this book. I highly recommend it. Now on to Linda Porter’s biography of Mary.

Book Review: “Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen” by John Edwards

This book is one volume in the outstanding Yale English Monarchs series and was published in 2011. This series always delivers high quality and reliable historical research. This book is no exception.

Edwards is an expert in English as well as Spanish history, making him uniquely qualified to write a biography of Mary who married the Spanish King Philip II. A lot of material is covered here. Edwards illustrates Mary’s childhood and describes how she went from being the beloved princess and apple of her parent’s eye to tortured soul. The descriptions of how she was treated by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in getting her to acknowledge her parent’s marriage as null and void and her own bastardy are harrowing.

Mary’s valiant fight for the throne is portrayed. Her tortuous decision to marry Philip was made in secret and was announced as a surprise to her council and the kingdom. There is a great deal of unique insight into the personalities of Mary and Philip and nice details about their marriage and partnership in ruling England. There is a chapter in the book where Edward’s gives context and background information on how Calais was lost on Mary’s watch. The loss of this strategic enclave on the continent was the unfortunate a by-product of the Hapsburg and Valois infighting over control of Italy. As Edward’s depicts the history, it is a riveting read.

The greatest contribution of this book are the chapters dealing with Mary’s lifelong dream to return England to the bosom of the Catholic Church. There were many practical and complicated matters to resolve for which there really were no permanent solutions. In this battle, Mary worked with her cousin, the Papal Legate Cardinal Reginald Pole. He was her main advisor. Edwards gives his fair and balanced analysis of why Mary burned the alleged heretics.

At first, the transformation from Protestantism to Catholicism went relatively well Mary. But when Pope Paul IV was elected, the entire operation took a drastic turn. Paul had been a personal friend of Pole but after this election, he began to turn against King Philip II and eventually Queen Mary and Pole were drawn into the conflict. This totally hampered Mary’s dream for England to be Catholic again.

This book is really fascinating. I enjoyed Edwards’s insights into Mary’s personality. If anyone is looking for a complete and enthralling biography of Queen Mary I, I would recommend this one.

Book Review: “Queenship in Medieval France, 1300-1500” by Murielle Gaude-Ferragu

This book is part of a series called The New Middle Ages published by Palgrave Macmillan. The series is dedicated to pluridisciplinary studies of medieval cultures, with a particular emphasis on recuperating women’s history, and on feminist and gender analyses. The peer-reviewed series includes scholarly monographs and essay collections. The book was originally published in 2014 in French. It was translated by Angela Kreiger and published in English in 2016. Gaude-Ferragu is University Professor of History at the Université Paris-13, Sorbonne-Paris-Cité, France.

At the beginning, there is a list of Queens of France covered in the time period given. This book is basically a list of duties required and exhibited for the queen in France and her relevance to the government and the symbolism of royalty. Gaude-Ferragu explains how the queen has a physical body and the royal body. The woman marries the King and there is a wedding ceremony. Following this, there is usually a coronation although in some cases during this two hundred year period, several queens were not crowned (Marie of Anjou, Charlotte of Savoy, etc.) Some of the coronations are retold in detail.

Perhaps the most important duty of a queen of France is to bear the king an heir, preferably male. The lying in period is explained. The Queen is responsible for the children’s upbringing and education. The next section of the book explains the power of the queen. Although women were barred by Salic Law from sitting on the throne and ruling in their own right, many of these women held some form of governing power, whether it was on the King’s Council or as regent for their young sons such as Isabeau of Bavaria. Other queens were not allowed to have much of a role at all. Gaude-Ferragu explains how queens represented the love of the government for the people and her role as intercessor.

Another section of the book covers the Queen’s ceremonial roles such as joyful entries into towns or funerals. The Queen’s household and courtly life is explained such as the operation of her treasury, her income and how it is derived, her library and her support as an advocate and patroness of the arts. The Queen is also expected to display piety in her daily life as well as in the establishment of religious and sacred foundations.

So many things are covered in this book and it is full of delightful personal details regarding the life of some of these women. There are a few illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography. Nothing is lost in the translation of the text. This is a textbook definition of the role of medieval queens in France and I’m sure these duties would be expected of other queens across Europe. Academics and casual readers would enjoy this book. I can’t recommend it enough.

Book Review: “Charles VII” by M.G. Vale

This volume is an English language biography of King Charles VII of France first published in 1974. As the author states in the Preface, this is not a conventional biography. His intention is to write a study of this enigmatic king by utilizing the evidence in a selective manner. Vale gives a contemporary assessment of Charles as both a king and a man as its starting point. He states in the beginning that there is precious little evidence about this king’s reign as many of the records no longer exist.

The first chapter is an overview of the king and his reign as it is viewed by historians in books from the past and how the reign is viewed in context. Vale then begins with a view of the king’s early years up until his meeting with Joan of Arc and his coronation at Reims. Other chapters recall his relationship with Joan of Arc, his son Louis and the nobility of France. The last part of the book cover his later years and then there is a section on the ceremonial king. Vale recounts several ceremonies Charles VII participated in and ends with a long description of his funeral.

Vale has a great deal of insight into the personality of Charles. Where some historians view him as a weak and fearful king, Vale believes just the opposite. He interprets Charles’ personality as very strong, militarily and politically. He believes the king played the nobles off against each other and elevated and destroyed these men with a political purpose. There is quite a bit in this book about the nobles who surrounded the king and their impact on his reign as well as his mistresses and mignons who lived close to the king and played a role in his life. The last chapter covers the later years of Charles’ reign and how his illnesses affected him and his government.

Personally, I enjoyed the recounting of Charles’ relationship with his son Louis as well as Vale’s views on Charles’ personality. Vale has a lot of information on the illnesses of the king which is fascinating. He has several theories about what Charles suffered from. The highlight of this book is the reprint of a memorandum that Charles dictated to his secretary in response to demands from his son Louis. Louis had left the kingdom of France and didn’t see his father for many years. Charles refuses Louis’ demands for surety of his safety and status at court and questions why Louis is so fearful and suspicious. This is a unique insight into the mind of the king and his tortured relationship with his son. While this book is not a conventional biography, it is most interesting and I recommend it.