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: “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.

Book Review: “Royal Intrigue: Crisis at the Court of Charles VI 1392-1420” by R.C. Famiglietti

Ever since I finished reading “Tales of the Marriage Bed from Medieval France (1300-1500)” by R. C. Famiglietti, I’ve been searching for a copy of “Royal Intrigue”. I wasn’t having any luck as no library near me had a copy and the rare copies I could find for sale were ridiculously expensive. With persistence, I kept checking various used book outlets and as luck would have it, I found an affordable used copy of this book.

Famiglietti’s approach to history and his writing style are very hard to resist. And the subject of the mental health of King Charles VI France intrigues me greatly. It stands to reason any insight into the illness of Charles VI would have a bearing on that of his grandson, King Henry VI of England who suffered a similar disorder. As I opened the book, it became clear I had hit the jackpot. The first chapter is titled “The Mental Disorder of Charles VI”.

While it is impossible for anyone to diagnose a subject that lived over six hundred years ago, Famiglietti gives a very convincing argument. He first recounts the historical records from the chroniclers who describe Charles VI’s behavior to come up with a list of symptoms. He then consults with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to see what illness matches these symptoms. His theory is some form of schizophrenia because he exhibited three out of the five defining factors for this illness. Within the diagnosis of schizophrenia, there are several different types. Charles exhibited symptoms that overlapped with these different types but Famiglietti recognizes an underlying theme: persecutory delusions.

After doing this detective work in psychiatry, Famiglietti gets to work writing about the different factions at the French court and how they schemed and plotted to take power while the king was incapacitated and how his persecutory delusions dictated the king’s reactions to these different schemes and events. Here we meet the major characters: Louis of Orléans and his son Charles, Duc d’Orléans, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, the Dauphin Louis, Duc de Guyenne, the king’s eldest son, King Henry V of England and John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy to name only the most important.

The opening salvo is the first psychotic episode Charles suffered in the summer of 1392 when he went berserk and killed four or five people. While he never had another attack this severe, for the rest of his life he moved in and out of calm and manic bouts, all the while suffering from the persecutory delusions. Famiglietti knows his sources and is able to reconstruct the history day by day if not down to the hour. He can tell when the king was having a good and bad day with his illness. He mentions letters which were issued either only in the king’s name or with the king and the council or letters written by other parties in the fight. He sometimes tells us where the principal character ate dinner and when they left to travel elsewhere in the kingdom. He has such wonderful insight into the personalities of the main players and even corrects other historian’s work where he thinks they have been mistaken in their conclusions.

All of this is pretty fascinating stuff! He covers the murder of Louis of Orléans and the assassination of John the Fearless. He explains the circumstances that led to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Other than the first chapter on the mental illness of the king, the best chapter is the one in which he describes the Cabochien Uprising of 1413. The royal family must have been scared out of their wits when John the Fearless goaded the butchers and other merchants to revolt. They entered the actual palaces and even took prisoner some of the Dauphin’s servants and had them executed. The Dauphin would work against the Burgundians and the Armagnacs from that point forward until his untimely death shortly afterward.

I loved this book just as much as the “Tales of the Marriage Bed”. In doing some research into R.C. Famiglietti, I was unable to find out any information on the man himself. He was a professor at the City University of New York when he wrote these books in the 1980’s but I have no idea where is now. He is a very unique and innovative historian as well as a great writer. I plan on digging to see if he wrote any other books or articles and try to read more.

Book Review: “The Making of the Tudor Dynasty” by Ralph Griffith and Roger Thomas

Anyone who has an interest in the Tudor dynasty of English kings will find this book invaluable. It should be primary reading for an understanding of where the Tudor family originated, giving essential information on their Welsh origins. Originally published in 1985, it is an extremely enjoyable to read.

Before his retirement in 2002, Ralph A. Griffiths was a Professor of Medieval History at Swansea University in Wales. He says in the preface of the book the origins of this volume began with a trip to Bosworth Field where he noticed there were more and larger portraits and greater access to information on Richard III at the battlefield center than there was for Henry Tudor. He found this distressing. Around the same time he was researching the early Tudors in Wales and he had a student, Roger S. Thomas, who had completed his doctoral thesis on Jasper Tudor. Griffiths was now prepared to make what he calls an “authoritative, coherent account of the earliest Tudors, including the Bosworth campaign itself”. He says Chapters 4-7 were heavily indebted to Roger Thomas’ work, thus requiring the listing of Thomas as co-author of this book.

The first chapter of the book covers the early Tudor family and their service to the princes of Wales, especially in Gwynedd. The early Tudors were not nobility but servants to these princes in several capacities. They were richly rewarded for their services and became wealthy landowners. Ednyfed Fychan, the early thirteenth century Tudor ancestor, had many children who continued in their service. They also tried to negotiate a path between being loyal to the princes of Wales and to the Kings of England. This state of affairs existed until the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr in 1400 when the English king came down hard on Wales with many restrictions on the country.

The most crucial descendant of the Tudor family was Owen Tudor. He married Katherine de Valois, the widowed queen of the Lancastrian king of England Henry V. The circumstances of this marriage are mysterious and highly romanticized. However, the marriage was acknowledged as valid during their lifetime and all the children born of the marriage were recognized as legitimate. The two most significant of their offspring were Edmund and Jasper. Edmund was the father of King Henry VII and Jasper, his uncle was critical to his mission to wrest the throne of England from King Richard III.

Griffiths covers this era in great detail. He also has significant information on Jasper and Henry’s exile in France as well as their mustering of an army for Henry’s invasion of England in 1485. Griffiths gives a succinct description of Henry’s march from his landing in Milford Haven in Wales to the battle site of Bosworth and of the battle itself. Henry’s victory was unexpected. Griffiths ends with a short overview of how Henry began his reign, who he rewarded and who he punished after his conquest.

This book reads like an adventure story. In addition to recounting the Tudor story, Griffiths gives us a rundown of the sources he used. There are numerous illustrations in the book that greatly add to the story. There’s a map of Tudor holdings in Wales and of Henry’s march through Wales to confront Richard III. The genealogy charts of the early Tudors are essential to an understanding of the family. I love this book and will use it in the future as a reference guide. I understand The History Press has released a new edition of the book in 2011 with a new preface. It is available as an e-book and in used editions.

Book Review: “The Women of the Cousins’ War” by Philippa Gregory et al

Apparently Philippa Gregory, a prolific writer of historical fiction, came up with the idea of collaborating with historians David Baldwin and Michael Jones to produce a book with the biographies of three women who played a significant role in the Wars of the Roses. I haven’t been able to find any primary references that state categorically that this conflict was called the “Cousin’s War” contemporaneously. If anyone can direct me to proof of this, please comment below. The women covered are Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Elizabeth Woodville herself and Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, the first king of the Tudor dynasty.

The introduction of the book is written by Gregory. It seems to be a kind of essay where she discusses the process of writing historical fiction and non-fiction. This section of the essay doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and I’m still not sure what her point is. She then goes on to discuss the history of the study of women’s history. This section is certainly more interesting. Women’s history has made great strides in recent years. But she discusses how women have been and are discriminated against in history and historical studies. She then proceeds to disparage the historical record of Margaret Beaufort, saying none of it is believable and calls her a virtuous and pious stereotype. I’m really puzzled by this. She appears she to have a bias against Beaufort and the Lancastrians.

Gregory wrote the essay on Jacquetta of Luxembourg. This chapter of the book has what little factual information there is on this intriguing woman. But it is basically a short history of the Wars of the Roses and is filled in with lots of “Jacquetta probably attended…” or “Jacquetta was possibly there…”. This basically confirms the fact there is precious information about her in the historical record which is really a shame.

The late David Baldwin, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2014, wrote the essay on Elizabeth Woodville. This chapter is an abridged version of his book, “Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower” which was first published in 2002. Of course the essay is excellent but if a reader is looking for more in depth information, I would recommend the book itself.

The essay on Margaret Beaufort was written by the expert, Michael Jones. Again, this is an abridged version of the author’s own book “The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby” by Jones and Malcolm Underwood. The essay is very good but I would also recommend Jones and Underwood’s biography or that of Elizabeth Norton if you want a complete picture of her life.

I have to say this is a strange book. I’m sure it was published with good intentions. The authors opted not to footnote their work and instead have given notes and bibliographies at the end of each chapter. There are also several black and white and color photographs, family trees, a list of battles of the Wars of the Roses and a map showing the location of the battles. If the reader is seeking quick and brief knowledge on these women and a short run down on the Wars of the Roses, this is your book. But I strongly suggest reading the full biographies for better and fuller historical material.

Book Review: “Richard III: A Ruler and His Reputation” by David Horspool

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As 2016 ended, I came across a list of historians and books they recommended for the year. Two of the historians named this book as one of the best. Naturally, I had to see why.

This book was billed as a “dispassionate” biography of Richard III. Horspool is the history editor of the “Times Literary Supplement” and has written several other history related books. I agree this biography is fair and even handed in its assessment of Richard’s character. Like Paul Murray Kendall’s book, Horspool begins with Richard III’s childhood and ends with his death. He has the advantage of knowing of the discovery of Richard’s bones.

In addition to recounting Richard’s life, Horspool goes into detail about the background of his family. He talks a lot about the politics of the Wars of the Roses era and many of the major players. Most importantly, Horspool scrutinizes Richard’s reputation. He goes into the ostensible Tudor propaganda and Shakespeare’s influence. There is some good information on Laurence Olivier’s interpretation of Richard in film and other historian’s writings.

Horspool is especially interested in the Richard III Society and discusses the society’s history and workings. He attended several meetings and his interpretation of the society is most interesting. He basically says the Society is fighting an uphill battle. He states that whether Richard was a bad man or not, he was a bad king and brought about not only his own destruction but that of his dynasty. His record of failure is hard to overturn. This book is very readable, open-minded, objective and impartial and I recommend it.

Book Review: “The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family” by Susan Higginbotham

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Research into the life of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of England as the wife of King Edward IV led me to this interesting little book. After reading a couple of biographies of her, it was clear she came from a large and diverse family. Her mother Jacquetta was a noblewoman from Luxembourg and had been married to the Duke of Bedford, brother of King Henry V. Bedford died not long after the wedding and Jacquetta was left a young widow with a lucrative inheritance. Permission for another marriage was required of King Henry VI. Jacquetta married Sir Richard Woodville without permission. After confessing, the couple paid an enormous fine to the king. Sir Richard was beneath Jacquetta in social standing but the marriage was successful.

The couple would have at least fourteen children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood. Once King Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, many of her siblings had a meteorite rise in social standing through marriages and through appointments to offices in the king’s government. This book is the story of these many siblings and what we know from the historical records. Higginbotham goes through each person and tells us what is known of their story. She covers who they married, what positions they were appointed to, how effective they were in office, how loyal they were to the king and what battles they fought in.

It is interesting to note that none of the men had surviving male children. There were a few daughters and some of Elizabeth’s sisters had children. At first, the family supported the House of Lancaster but after Elizabeth’s marriage, they became loyal to the House of York. Higginbotham addresses all the arguments that have been made for and against this family. She makes some very valid points in all cases. I found this book to be fair and even-handed in addressing issues with the family and would recommend it for anyone interested in the Wars of the Roses era.