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: “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.

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: “Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower” by Susan Higginbotham

This is a recent biography of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, published in 2016. It is very short at 148 pages as well as being very sparse on information on Margaret. There is a great deal of material on the court of King Henry VIII in the book as it relates to Margaret. One thing I enjoyed in reading this is Higginbotham quotes several letters and chroniclers, giving a realistic picture of the times.

The book has a nice section of color illustrations and a respectable bibliography. The appendix section gives a selection of evidence in the Exeter Conspiracy which contributed to the downfall of the Countess. Higginbotham is an engaging writer and exhibits a subtle sense of humor. She cites the work of Hazel Pierce quite a bit. For an agreeable introduction to the life of Margaret Pole, I would recommend this book. For a more detailed and academic rendering of her life, I would suggest Hazel Pierce’s biography.