Book Review: “The Path to Somerset” (The Seymour Saga Book 2) by Janet Wertman

Janet Wertman has followed her successful novel “Jane the Quene” with book 2, “The Path to Somerset” in what she has entitled “The Seymour Saga”. This volume is a richly detailed and dark account of the rise of Jane Seymour’s elder brother Edward to the position of regent and Lord Protector of England for his nephew King Edward VI. The story covers some of the most significant episodes in the reign of King Henry VIII.

Edward Seymour was one of the few people who were well liked by Henry VIII. All your favorite Tudor personalities appear in the saga including Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Margaret Douglas, Edward’s brother Thomas Seymour, Edward’s wife Anne Seymour, Stephen Gardiner and many others. This is a reliable depiction of the inner workings of King Henry’s government from 1540 until his death in January of 1547.

Wertman has written some great scenes displaying the animosity between Cromwell and Norfolk. The first meeting between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves is portrayed and very enjoyable. We see the rise and fall of Catherine Howard and Henry’s marriage to the mature widow Katherine Parr. We are witnesses to the scheming of certain men in the council to bring about Queen Katherine Parr’s downfall. The death of Henry and all the machinations behind the scenes are shown here with some exceptional dialogue. Wertman brings these people to life. A very enjoyable read and looking forward to Wertman’s next installment on the Seymour family.

Book Review: “A History of Spain and Portugal” by Stanley G. Payne

Admittedly, my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese history is scanty. I’m in the middle of some serious research on Portugal and knowing the history of the two countries is connected, this book looked like a good bet. The book was printed in two volumes and was published in 1973 by the University of Wisconsin Press. Stanley G. Payne has a long and distinguished career as an historian and is considered a specialist in Spanish fascism. His last position before his retirement was chairman of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As Payne states in the preface, these volumes were written to address the need for a reasonably full and up-to-date comprehensive history of Spain and Portugal which can be used as a textbook for courses in Spanish history or as an interpretive account for other readers. His intention is to give accounts of the political and institutional history, including the church and religion, as well as social and economic history. He does not go into too much detail about literary and art history by design as these subjects are well covered elsewhere.

For each kingdom on the Peninsula, Payne gives succinct details of how the peasants lived, how the nobility came to power, how royalty took over the government, how each kingdom (Leon, Castile, Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, etc.) came into being and was absorbed into what we call Spain today. He explains the economies of each kingdom. There were sheep and cattle in Castile, trade within the Mediterranean and without by the eastern kingdoms, ironworks in the Basque area, etc. He explains how peasants worked the land, some making rent payments to the overlord and some who owned their land. There were slaves who worked the land. He talks about the soldiers who fought the wars. Payne doesn’t talk much about the actual kings and queens and only mentions a few of the most politically important ones by name.

Payne is very precise in describing the religious situation in the Peninsula. There were pagans initially and then Christians, Muslims and Jews. He chronicles the histories of these people such as how they lived in harmony for the most part until the Catholic Majesties decided they wanted religious harmony and went to war. There were forced conversions or many people were expelled. The Catholic Church was powerful but royalty always had the ability to check this power.

Personally I found this book to be masterful. The history of the Iberian Peninsula is fascinating in and of itself. But Payne’s writing and treatment of the subject matter had me totally captivated. He minces no words here. From the history of the ancients to the modern 20th century, this is a great read. To me the best material deals with the social history. I certainly learned a lot of new vocabulary! It’s not necessarily a definitive work but more of a comprehensive overview. Some may find it a bit of slog but if you stay with it, you will certainly find this work rewarding.

Book Review: “Elizabeth De Valois, Queen of Spain, and the Court of Philip II” by Martha Walker Freer

The subtitle of this book is “From Numerous Unpublished Sources in the Archives of France, Italy and Spain” and it comes in two volumes. As I’ve said on this blog before, I enjoy reading old history books. This one was published in 1857 and is a complete revelation. I just happened to find the first volume electronically by doing a search on Google Books for Elizabeth de Valois. The second volume is available for purchase as a reprint from any reliable bookseller.

From the entry on Martha Walker Freer in the Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, Volume 49 written by Elizabeth Lee:

Mrs. Martha Walker Robinson (1822–1888), writer on French history under her maiden name of Freer, daughter of John Booth Freer, M.D., was born at Leicester in 1822. Her first book, ‘Life of Marguerite d’Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, Duchesse d’Alençon, and De Berry, Sister of Francis I,’ appeared in 1854, in two volumes. In 1861 she married the Rev. John Robinson, rector of Widmerpool, near Nottingham, but all her works bear her maiden name. She continued publishing books dealing with French history until 1866. She died on 14 July 1888. Her works are mere compilations, although she claimed to have had access to manuscripts and other unpublished material. Although inferior in style and arrangement to the books of Julia Pardoe [q. v.] on similar subjects, they enjoyed for a time wide popularity. Two of them, ‘Marguerite d’Angoulême’ and ‘Jeanne d’Albret’ (1855), reached second editions. Mrs. Robinson died on 14 July 1888.
Her other works are: 1. ‘Elizabeth de Valois, Queen of Spain and the Court of Philip II,’ 2 vols. 1857. 2. ‘Henry III, King of France and Poland: his Court and Times,’ 3 vols. 1858. 3. ‘History of the Reign of Henry IV, King of France and Navarre,’ part i. 2 vols. 1860; part ii. 2 vols. 1861; part iii. 2 vols. 1863. 4. ‘The Married Life of Anne of Austria and Don Sebastian,’ 2 vols. 1864. 5. ‘The Regency of Anne of Austria,’ 2 vols. 1866.

I had never heard of Freer before this. The work is footnoted and is based on many different sources from different nations. Although this work has some suspect elements of fiction, I found it to be astounding as far as research and retelling of the story of Elizabeth de Valois. She basically recounts the entire life of this Queen of Spain who died too young at the age of 23. There are many anecdotes of important moments in her life such as her baptism which was attended by ambassadors from the court of King Henry VIII of England, her state entry into Toledo and an amusing, near calamitous accident involving her carriage and the long train of her dress. The description of her death and her funeral are very touching.

It seems Freer’s work was written with one main mission in mind. She wanted to dispel the myth of an affair between Queen Elizabeth and her husband’s mentally unstable son Don Carlos. The book goes into great detail about Don Carlos’ life and death. Freer manages to knock down any idea that there was impropriety or affair between these two. There is a great amount of information regarding Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother Queen Catherine de’Medici and she uses many of the letters written by the two women. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was stuck in the middle between her husband and her mother regarding diplomatic maneuvers but for the most part she followed the advice of her husband. The meeting at Bayonne involving the Queen and her mother is meticulously described.

I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. I have purchased the volumes by Freer on the life of King Henri III of France. Looking forward to reading more.

Book Review: “Philip of Spain” by Henry Kamen

Kamen’s seminal biography of King Philip II of Spain was published in 1997 and I remember when I read it then I enjoyed it very much. Since reading Geoffrey Parker’s new biography of Philip, I decided to read this book again. I’m glad I did as it gave me a new perspective.

Kamen’s book is not as detailed as Parker’s. Parker has a lot more information on Philip’s early life and the writing is based more on Philip’s actual words from existing and newly discovered documentation. However, Kamen’s book has a great overview of Philip’s reign. He breaks down Philip’s time in power into several sections by years with chapter titles such as The Formative Years, The Renaissance Prince, Soldier and King, Towards Total War and The Time of Thunder to name a few. For information on the man himself, the two chapters with the most interesting material are titled The World of Philip II and The Statesman. These cover the man himself, his wives and children, his foreign policy and other noteworthy tidbits of information about Philip as a person.

Because I had just read Parker’s biography, it was thought-provoking to note the differences in opinion between the two authors. Kamen mentions throughout this book how he disagrees with Parker on several points, some minor but with several major differences. For example, Kamen does not believe Philip II had anything to do with the murder of Juan Escobedo while Parker goes into great detail in an effort to prove Philip did. It is intriguing to consider the two points of view.

This book is enhanced with maps, a family tree and photo section. It appears in some ways that Kamen is an apologist for Philip but this does not detract from his perspective on the life and reign of this significant and in some ways remarkable king. I highly recommend this book and would suggest if the reader has the time and opportunity to read both this biography and Parker’s. Kamen’s book has definitely withstood the test of time since its publication 21 years ago.

Book Review: “Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II” by Geoffrey Parker

While doing research on Queen Mary I of England, I happened to find this book about her husband King Philip II of Spain. It was published by the Yale University Press in 2014 and Geoffrey Parker is a known authority on the reign of this king. Parker states he began research and the writing of a biography of Philip in the 1960’s. He states in the introduction that his first effort is 1600 pages long and trusted editors worked on that volume to produce this shortened version of the book.

Parker gained access to some papers of Philip’s reign in 2012. These documents were part of a huge collection which were stored in a vault in the Hispanic Society of America in New York City. They remained unseen from the time Philip’s secretaries had filed them away until 2012 when they were identified and catalogued. This allowed Parker to update his biography even further with this new found information.

King Philip did not allow anyone to write about his life while he lived so there are no contemporary books about him. Parker states in his introduction that his intention was to tell Philip’s life story using only Philip’s words. Philip was known as “the paper king” and left mountains of paperwork either written in his own hand or with annotations on other people’s documents. Parker succeeds in his mission to do this. It is really fascinating to read these words, giving great insight into the mind of this man who ruled an empire upon which the sun never set.

I’ve never read a biography that goes into such great detail. While some might find the minutiae irritating or boring, I found it interesting. A couple of things that struck me were how Philip ate lunch every day and would mention “come see me after lunch” or “we will work on this during lunch”. Among other things, Philip began work on one of the greatest Renaissance royal residences: El Escorial. After hearing about the building of this massive project, I would really like to visit.

Another chapter discusses genetics and the intermarriage of the Hapsburgs and how this affected their health, especially Philip’s son Don Carlos. There is a graph showing Don Carlos’ family tree. Parker explains he was the great-grandson of Juana of Castile through both is father and his mother, giving him a double dose of mental instability. And, instead of having eight great-grandparents, he only had four. No wonder his physical and mental health were unstable.

The author gives his theory on the murder of Juan Escobedo, one of Philip’s principal secretaries. He believes Philip was culpable for this murder and goes to great lengths in explaining why. It’s almost like a detective story. Parker is very good at telling it like it is about King Philip, good and bad. This is a really good read and whether the reader has knowledge of Spanish history or not will find it worthwhile.

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.