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: “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.

Book Review: “Portugal: A Short History” by Harold V. Livermore

Livermore states in the preface that he was invited to produce a history of Portugal for a series of short histories on various countries. He had already written a longer “History of Portugal” and a more compact “New History of Portugal” so for this version, he decided to concentrate on the evolution of Portuguese society. This volume covers the main important political events with some interpretation of social organization.

The early chapters cover the origins of Portugal from pre-Roman times to the accession of Afonso Henriques, the first Portuguese king. This section covers pre-Roman, Roman Portugal, the Suevi, the Muslims and the territory of Portucale. I found this section a bit of a slog. Livermore gives a general outline of social history here but he basically relies on the reader to know some of the events and people he is writing about. This is basic information and I’ve found other books that go into more detail about this era.

Next up is the formation of the country of Portugal, peninsular integration and the Age of Discoveries. This section holds more interest and details much of Portuguese society in medieval times and the improbable rise of Portugal and their seaborne empire. Again, there is a basic outline of the Portuguese discoveries but this book is not meant to cover this era in detail. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this section as it covered the medieval era and has some interesting characters.

Livermore has a good section on the integration of Portugal with the Spanish monarchy. Relevant to my research was an excellent explanation for the expulsion of the Spanish government and the restoration of the monarchy by naming the Duke of Braganza king and the commencement of a new dynasty. The author devotes a long chapter on the eighteenth century, the absolute monarchy and the dictatorship of Pombal. This section includes a lot of economic data and information on trade with the Portuguese colony of Brazil.

From this point on in the book, I really enjoyed Livermore’s description of the “Liberal Monarchy” and the various political factions that emerged in Portuguese government. While all of this is a genuinely tangled web, Livermore makes it comprehensible. The book ends with the dissolution of the Braganza dynasty of kings and the commencement of a republic in Portugal. This is a great little volume and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Catherine of Bragança” by Lillias Campbell Davidson and Book Giveaway

For the chance to win a free book, see below

Royal House of Portugal by gribble book cover

Boy am I lucky.  Somehow, I managed to get a first edition of this book published in 1908. It’s filled with portraits and illustrations and dedicated to: “The people of Portugal who gave their princess throughout her life love, loyalty, devotion and by whom in her death she is not forgotten”. What a thrill to hold a book in my hands that is 110 years old.  This work has been out of print for many years.  My precious copy of this book was donated to the public library in Plymouth, England.  It was withdrawn and a bookseller managed to find it and offer it for sale.

The subtitle of this book is “Infanta of Portugal & Queen-Consort of England.  Once again, I am reading this book for research purposes.  I first read Janet MacKay’s biography of Catherine of Braganza so it has been interesting to compare the two author’s observations on this queen’s life.  Davidson is similar in her writing style to MacKay as there is a lot of description and flowery Edwardian language.  She has a tendency to go off on a tangent here with long recollections of related subjects such as the life of the Louise de Kerouaille, Charles II’s French mistress.  All of this is interesting but it does detract from Catherine’s story and it makes for a long book, 502 pages!

I found Davidson’s early chapter on the House of Braganza and Catherine’s childhood to be thin on information.  Catherine’s early years are shrouded in mystery so this accounts for some of the lack of detail.  And the particulars of the Braganza family history are questionable from other research I have done.  Some of the positives in this narrative are the description of Catherine’s resistance to allowing Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine as a Lady of the Bedchamber and her views of Catherine’s relationship with Charles.

Davidson’s recounting of the Popish Plot which threatened Catherine’s life if not as detailed and insightful as MacKay’s.  She also quotes verbatim the letters written in Catherine’s own hand to her brother in arranging her return to Portugal after Charles’ death just as MacKay did in her biography. Davidson’s description of the last years of Catherine’s life in Portugal is not complete.  There is a very short bibliography here and she cites some sources that do not appear in her list.  But overall, this is a well-researched and detailed biography.  She must be given credit for completing the first comprehensive biography of this enigmatic queen based on the sources and methods available in the early 20th century.

If you enjoy Stuart history, I have a copy of “The Prince of Wales Who Would Be King:  The Life and Death of Henry Stuart” by Sarah Fraser.  For a chance to win this book about this forgotten Jacobean prince, leave a comment below.  

 

 

 

Book Review: “Catherine of Braganza” by Janet MacKay

Mackay Braganza book cover

 

I’ve been doing some research on the seventeenth century and found a used copy of this book, originally published in 1937.  MacKay wrote this twenty-nine years after Lillias Campbell Davidson wrote her definitive biography.  I have been unable to find any biographical information on MacKay, who authored one other book.

There are many primary sources documenting Catherine’s life.  MacKay’s writing is flavored with description and fantasy but overall she adheres to the historical truth.  I found Mackay has a considerable amount of insight into the personalities of Catherine of Braganza and King Charles II and it makes for interesting reading.

The first chapter on Catherine’s life is short, about twenty pages but this is the only part of Catherine’s life that is not well-documented.  The narrative then picks up momentum and describes the various negotiations regarding her marriage to Charles II, the newly restored Stuart King of England.  There’s a great description of Catherine’s leave-taking of her mother, her brothers and her beloved Portugal.  Once she is in England, her troubles begin with the difficult Lady Castlemaine and Charles’ insistence that she relent in allowing Castlemaine to become a Lady of the Bedchamber.

MacKay gives a succinct and compelling retelling of the Popish Plot which threatened Catherine’s life.  Although her time in England had its ups and downs, Charles stood by her the entire time.  She was devastated by his death in 1685.  Catherine remained in England another seven years and worked tirelessly to return to Portugal.  Her marriage contract allowed this but she had a difficult time getting a ship to take her home and some illness which delayed her.  Astonishingly, there are eighty letters written by Catherine in the British Library, many of them written to her brother regarding arrangements for her return to Portugal.  MacKay quotes these letters extensively to tell the story.

The last few years spent by Catherine in Portugal are well covered here.  The book has several portraits.  There is an adequate bibliography but it is poorly footnoted as many books were from this era.  Nonetheless, MacKay has written an insightful biography which I enjoyed very much.

Book Review: “Scandalous Liaisons: Charles II and his Court” by R.E. Pritchard

Scandalous Liaisions book cover

 

There is no doubt, the court of King Charles II of England was decadent.  This book tells the entire story of this hedonistic king, beginning from his youth in England, through his exile in Europe, his restoration to the throne of England and up until his death.  Every mistress is covered here and not just for the king.  Pritchard details the lives of some of the noteworthy men of the era such as Charles’ brother, James, Duke of York, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester among others.

All of these men had many mistresses.  Some of them are famous such as Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, Louise-Renee Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, Hortense Mancini, the actresses Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn and Charles’ early liaison with Lucy Walter.   The Duke of York took as his mistress Anne Hyde, daughter of the Chancellor Edward Hyde and made her his wife, marrying her in secret.  Duels were fought over some of these women.  The Queen’s Ladies-in-Waiting were fair game as well as the maids and servants.

What’s different about this book is that the author is a specialist in seventeenth century and modern literature.  He points out how many writers, poets, and playwrights chronicled all of these liaisons in their poetry, lyrics and drama.  Many of these are quoted in the book.  It gives us insight into how other ordinary folk viewed the libertines at court as well as the women.  I have to admit, after a while, reading about all these affairs became a little tedious.  But the quoting of contemporary literature makes this book unique and it is worthwhile if the reader is interested in the subject.