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.

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.