Book Review: “Isabel of Burgundy” by Aline Taylor

The subtitle of this book is “The Duchess Who Played Politics in the Age of Joan of Arc, 1397-1471”. I have to confess, I read this book a few years ago while doing some research. Recently, in reading the four volume series of books on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy by Richard Vaughan, I completed the one on Philip the Good and felt like I needed to revisit the life of Isabel in the context of her husband’s life and decided to re-read it.

It is unfortunate there is no definitive biography of Isabel and this book is not meant to be an academic recounting of Isabel’s life. It is a combination of historical fact with a bit of fiction. This is really unfortunate as the author has an academic background and is the former editor of three academic journals and could obviously have done better. Despite the unorthodox style, I found the book enjoyable because Taylor highlights the personal side of Isabel’s life.

Isabel is somewhat exceptional for a medieval woman of royalty. She was the daughter of King John I of Portugal, the first king of the House of Aviz. Her mother was Philippa, the eldest daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and son of King Edward III of England. Although there were many possible marriages discussed for her, she didn’t marry until she was in her early thirties. She would be the third wife of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Philip married her for her royal birth, ties to England and Portugal and for her ability to have children.

Isabel fulfilled her childbearing duty and would have three sons, of which only one, Charles, survived. However, Philip got a lot more than he bargained for with Isabel. She was highly intelligent. Her parents had educated her along with her numerous brothers and she was especially adept at accounting and negotiating and arbitration. These excellent skills were put to good use by Philip. He allowed her to negotiate peace and trade treaties for the duration of their marriage. Isabel’s English and Portuguese background would influence her efforts at mediation and facilitate good relations between Burgundy, England and France. Her greatest accomplishment may have been the triumphant marriage of her son Charles with the sister of King Edward IV of England, Margaret of York.

Taylor’s narrative in this book emphasizes Isabel’s accomplishments. There are many twists and turns to this era in Burgundian history, the most significant being the fact that Isabel’s husband sent her on many missions while working behind her back to make alliances and war with France. It’s hard to imagine what kind of tension this brought to Isabel’s marriage but it certainly makes an appealing story. The book is not written in chronological order. There are some footnotes which appear at the end of each chapter but there is no bibliography which is disappointing. Although this is an interesting read, a well written and researched biography remains to be written about this fascinating medieval princess.

Book Review: “Philip the Good” by Richard Vaughan

Once again, Vaughan delivers with this biography of Philip the Good, third volume of the four volumes series on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. The subtitle of this book is “The Apogee of Burgundy”. It was during Philip’s reign that Burgundy was at its highest point as a powerful European state and he ruled the longest of any of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Philip was Duke during the end of the struggles between England and France, known as the Hundred Years War. Burgundy played an integral part, sometimes on the side of England, sometimes on the side of France. While these three entities fought and made peace among themselves, Philip was conquering and annexing various part of Northern Europe. Philip fought with Jacqueline of Hainault for several years and finally broke her resolve. She named Philip as her successor and when she died in 1436, he was ruler of Holland, Zeeland and Hainault. He managed to annex Luxembourg into his territories also.

Philip would have to contend with several rebellions in some of his principal cities. He dealt with artisan rebels in Liège and Ghent along with others. King Charles VII of France was a real thorn in Philip’s side. Even though Charles was guilty of murdering Philip’s father John the Fearless, and despite Charles’ many attempts to frustrate and even annex parts of Philip’s empire, the Duke was deferential. He thought of himself as the premier nobleman in France and took his chivalric duties to heart. In fact, Charles VII and his son Louis XI were dead set on taking Burgundy into the royal domain and this would actually come to fruition in 1477.

This book is packed with great information. Vaughan recounts some of the many marriage alliances Philip made with his immediate family and with his nieces and nephews. There is chapter on the Duke and his court which explains how Philip loved pomp and circumstance and would great pageants and spectacles and massive jousting tournaments. He started the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece and collected medieval manuscripts. Philip was married three times with his final wife, Isabel of Portugal being his best and most helpful wife. She would act in his name many times and was instrumental in negotiating many alliances and trade agreements.

Other chapters in the book deal with the economics and trade of Burgundy, financial affairs, his relations with the Church, Philip’s attempts to gain a crown for some of his territories and his attempt to mount a religious crusade for the relief of Constantinople. One of the most fascinating sections of the book is a long list drawn up by one of Philip’s administrators listing what would be needed for the crusade in the way of people, supplies, transportation and how much it would all cost. Like the other two volumes in this series, this one is a great read. Looking forward to the next chapter, the son of Philip the Good, Charles the Bold.

Book Review: “John the Fearless” by Richard Vaughan

This book is the second in the series of four by Richard Vaughan on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy. The subtitle for this volume is “The Growth of Burgundian Power”. In the first book about John’s father Philip the Bold, Vaughan recounts how the Valois gained ownership of the duchy and county of Burgundy as well as other properties and the formation of the Burgundian state. This book details how John the Fearless enlarged that state.

John the Fearless is the most fascinating of the Burgundian dukes for me so far. It was during his tenure as duke that much of what is now the Low Countries came under Burgundian control. John was also a major player in the conflicts of the kingdom of France under the mad King Charles VI. John believed he had the right to act as regent during the king’s illnesses and he wasn’t about to let anyone stand in his way. He even went so far as to have the king’s brother Louis, Duke of Orleans murdered in the streets of Paris at night in 1407. This was considered a most shocking act. Most importantly, he never was forced to officially pay for the crime.

John’s reign as duke is filled with warfare, treachery, murder, mayhem, mistresses and illegitimate children. John gained his soubriquet “the Fearless” after a murderous battle he won over the rebellious subjects of the city of Liège on the field of Othée in what is now Belgium. In a chapter entitled “The Means to Power”, Vaughan goes into meticulous detail about the finances, the civil service and the Burgundian army. Some may find this dry material but I found it to be intriguing. There is even a chapter on how John’s wife Margaret of Bavaria ruled Burgundy on his behalf while he engaged in empire building elsewhere.

The last chapter concerns the assassination of John the Fearless on the bridge of Montereau in 1419. This came about due to John’s active interference in the government of France. He made many enemies due to his calculated murder of the Duke of Orleans. And the Dauphin Charles (the future King Charles VII) sided with the Duke’s enemies, the Armagnacs from the French civil war. Vaughan states there are many versions of the assassination on the bridge that create much confusion. But he has scrutinized all the sources and come up with common themes and consistencies to figure out the true course of events. For him, there is no doubt the murder was meticulously planned and the Dauphin, whether he delivered any real blows or not, was responsible for the outcome.

I find there is nothing better than French medieval history. This book is easy to read and jam-packed with detail and absorbing stories about an eccentric if not deranged personality. Moving on to read about John the Fearless’ son Philip the Good.

Book Review: “Philip the Bold” by Richard Vaughan

It really was not my intention to read the four volume series on the Dukes of Burgundy by Richard Vaughan. However, I was looking at the first volume on Philip the Bold for some research on an article and found it to be quite interesting. It seemed worthwhile so I started reading it. The subtitle for this one is “The Formation of the Burgundian State”.

Richard Vaughan did extensive research on the four Valois Dukes of Burgundy in the late fifties and the four volumes were published in the early sixties. They were republished in paperback in 1979 and again in 2002 with reprints three more times since then. They are readily available from any bookseller and some will even give a discount for buying all four. There are copious sources for the history of this time period as the Burgundian dukes and the Flemish state kept meticulous records, many of which still exist. It is obvious Vaughan methodically pored over these primary sources and studied secondary sources as well.

Vaughan clearly states in his introduction this is not meant to be a standard biography of Philip the Bold. He was more interested in describing Philip’s policies, his administration, his court and his finances and to depict Burgundy as a European power. Vaughan begins with the backstory of how the original Duke of Burgundy’s dynasty died out and how King John the Good of France, for all intents and purposes, gave the duchy and county of Burgundy to his younger son Philip. This is the beginning of the Burgundian state as defined by Vaughan. Philip used different methods and processes to increase his power and territories. These include marriage alliances, expansion, diplomacy and inheritance.

The author addresses how Philip added Flanders and other counties and cities to his territories, how he administered them and his finances. There are many charts and spreadsheets in the book about the finances of the duke. Some may find this tough going and dry material but I actually found it fascinating. Vaughan argues Philip couldn’t have expanded his territories without the help of the French crown and these tables illustrate that vividly. The book includes several maps exemplifying Philip’s holdings and an extensive bibliography.

Vaughan’s writing is fast-flowing and easy to read. Even though it is not a conventional biography, it is possible for the reader to clearly grasp the personality of the duke. The book is a pleasure to read and I learned a lot. Looking forward to volume two, John the Fearless.

Book Review: “Bastard Prince: Henry VIII’s Lost Son” by Beverley A. Murphy

I was doing some research for an article on Henry Fitzroy, illegitimate son of King Henry VIII and happened to find this book. I was pleasantly surprised as I had no idea someone had written a biography of Fitzroy. The book was first published in 2001 and I was lucky enough to find a used copy.

Beverley Murphy apparently wrote her dissertation on Fitzroy and felt his life deserved further investigation. She was encouraged by the historian David Loades to write the book. I like the format of the book. She begins with the life of Fitzroy’s mother Bessie Blount. While this recognized mistress of Henry VIII has been a shadowy figure, Murphy fills in the gaps with the known information on her life. The next chapter discusses how King Henry may have considered making Fitzroy his heir. Indeed this is a theme throughout the book. Murphy covers the pros and cons of the argument, giving insight into how King Henry may have viewed this possibility.

King Henry elevated Fitzroy to the dual titles of Duke of Richmond and Somerset and he was therefore known primarily as the Duke of Richmond. The years Richmond spent in the north of England at Sheriff Hutton and Pontefract are covered in detail here. There are plenty of primary sources giving Murphy great insight, especially regarding his finances. Richmond was given a huge patrimony of land, castles and income, making him the premier noble in England. Part of his duties included being the titular head of a reconstituted Council of the North, the position held by Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future King Richard III) under his brother King Edward IV.

Another position given to Richmond was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The duties of this position were covered by a council and Richmond never visited Ireland. Murphy makes the case that Henry VIII considered elevating Richmond to King of Ireland, possibly in an effort to make him more sought-after on the marriage market. There were some efforts to marry him to a continental princess. Murphy has a whole chapter on the role of the council in Ireland under Richmond and how the council was used a political tool by King Henry and Thomas Cromwell.

As Richmond approached his adulthood, he was beginning to assert himself. He was more in charge of his holdings and was given a role in representing the king such as acting as a witness to the execution of the Carthusian monks of the London Charterhouse and the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn and in entertaining dignitaries at court. There were plans for him to move into Baynard Castle in London and to begin conjugal relations with his wife Mary Howard. But all this was for naught as Richmond died. He was only ill for a short time and most likely died of the same medical issue as his half-brother King Edward VI.

This book is thorough, well written and an enjoyable read. Murphy covers Richmond’s legacy and has a discussion on how he nearly became King Henry IX. There are genealogical tables, a section of pictures and a comprehensive bibliography. I’m willing to venture this is the definitive biography of Richmond and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Four Princes” by John Julius Norwich

The subtitle of this book is “Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe”. Whew! How about that for raising expectations? But I have to say, this book delivers.

There is a blurb inside the front cover that says this: “Never before had the world seen four such giants coexisting. Sometimes friends, more often enemies, always rivals, these four men together held Europe in the hollow of their hands.” This pretty much sums up the era and what a time it was. Europe was experiencing great upheaval. There was monumental transformations in matters of religion. The Renaissance began with new discoveries in science, mass printing of books and gorgeous art being produced.

Amidst all this upheaval, there were four princes who ruled Europe, all with monumental egos. This books introduces us to the four men, giving their backgrounds. The author explains their changing alliances along with their bellicose warfare. There were many different meetings between these men which are described here. Treaties were made and broken. Invasions were mounted. Suleiman the Magnificent was at the outskirts of Vienna but drew back twice. Francis I of France stunned Europe by forging ties with the Sultan in an effort to stave off having France taken over by Charles V. Because the author has written about the papacy, he includes a lot of papal history and how it relates to the other rulers. You just can’t make this stuff up.

I would classify this book as ‘popular history’, whatever that means. It is not meant to be an academic work and indeed, I found a few historical mistakes. These are just a few of the most glaring errors. Norwich states that King Francis I’s mother Louise of Savoy attended peace talks in Toledo in July of 1525. This is incorrect. Francis’ sister Marguerite was present and spoke directly to Charles V about the release of Francis from captivity after the devastating French loss at Pavia.

Norwich also states that Cardinal Compeggio had been sent to England in 1518 and that he remained there from that date until the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529 was convened to discuss the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon. This is not so. Compeggio had to travel from the continent to England for this trial. Norwich also has a footnote regarding Sir Thomas More where he states that Henry had More arrested after he refused to attend the King’s wedding to Anne Boleyn. I have no idea where he got this and it’s almost laughable.

But this does not detract from the overall joy of reading the fascinating history of early modern Europe. The book has a section of beautiful color photos and a limited bibliography. It’s a good starting point for those who are new to the era and a good vacation read for those who know the history.

Book Review: “Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War 1139-1153” by Jim Bradbury

The story of the Empress Matilda is fascinating on so many levels. While I knew the basic outline of the civil strife in twelfth century England called the “Anarchy”, I didn’t know many details. I happened to find an affordable used copy of this book and it turned out to be worth every penny.

There is no doubt Bradbury knows the history. He quotes many sources in the narrative. The first two chapters are “The Causes of the Civil War” and “The Two Sides”. He gives thorough background on the family of King Henry I, the death of William Adelin and how Henry compelled the nobles, clergy and magnates to swear an oath to support Matilda as his heir. Bradbury believes, based on the chronicles, that Henry may have groomed Matilda to be a Queen Mother rather than a Queen Regnant and changed his mind on his deathbed, supporting his nephew Stephen as his successor. The author explains which nobles in England and Normandy fought for each side, describing a great cast of characters.

Once the lines were drawn in the sand, the nobles chose sides between the anointed King Stephen and his opponent Matilda. Matilda eventually arrived in England to press her case and the war starts. The Angevins, as Matilda’s party were called, managed to take control of some of the country. The height of Matilda’s success was the First Battle of Lincoln in February, 1141 which Bradbury recounts in great detail. After this, Matilda’s behavior and temper caused her to lose support and Stephen was released and ruled again.

Bradbury explains how both parties avoided all-out pitched battles throughout the whole conflict. There really were only two standout battles with noteworthy causalities. The rest of the fighting consisted of sieges and counter-sieges with the building of castles and counter-castles. No one managed to achieve a definitive victory because the nobles were adept at changing sides whenever it was to their advantage. Bradbury calls the era of the fight with the Empress the Matildine war and the era with her son Henry the Henrician war. Eventually, the nobles recognized Henry as Stephen’s heir and peace prevailed. The author also gives some background information on Matilda’s husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and his conquest of Normandy. It was interesting to learn how he wrested this duchy from King Stephen.

I especially liked the last chapter where Bradbury gives the historical arguments for whether this conflict should be christened the “Anarchy”. He ends with the effects of the civil war. There is a good bibliography listed. I have to say I now have a thorough understanding of this conflict and more insight into twelfth century England and how the Plantagenets came to power. I highly recommend this book.