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.

Book Review: “Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541” by Hazel Pierce

The subtitle of this book is “Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership”. I knew very little about Margaret Pole other than she died for her faith and suffered a horrendous execution. First published in 2003, this appears to be the definitive biography of her. The origins of this book lie in Pierce’s thesis which she completed in 1997. Pierce is a trained historian who taught at Bangor University in Wales and she has written extensively on fifteenth and sixteenth British history and on the Pole family in particular.

This book is storytelling and historical research at its best. Pierce has meticulously studied the primary sources to piece together the story of Margaret and her family. Little is known of Margaret’s early life. There is more information about her marriage and then a good deal of data on her life after her husband’s death. What I like about this narrative is the thoughtful insight into the life of her subject. Pierce gives information on Margaret’s status at court and her connections there. She gives a list of her properties and there is a map showing their location. She tells us who her connections were, who her servants were, how she administered her properties and how she arranged marriages for her children.

There are two chapters dedicated to an assessment of the conspiracy that caused the fall of the Pole family. Here is where Pierce is at her best. She unravels the details of the Exeter conspiracy directly from the primary sources and then recounts the consequences. This is the tale of a woman whose children caused her arrest and death. Pierce pulls no punches here. She praises her subject but she is also honest in saying when Margaret and her children made mistakes. Margaret’s son Cardinal Reginald Pole does not come off in a good light here. It was very easy for him to exercise his right to criticize the king when he was in Rome. He either didn’t realize the consequences to his family or he didn’t care.

This book exposed some myths for me. There is very little evidence Margaret supported the church as other medieval noblewomen did. Her only response to the religious changes in England at the time was to not allow her servants to have the Bible in English. Her one fault as far as King Henry VIII was concerned was her loyal support of his daughter the Lady Mary.

The other mythical episode in Margaret’s life concerns her execution. Here, Pierce gives the accounts from the primary sources and explains that orders for her beheading were rushed. The execution took place in a small corner within the confines of the Tower and was not witnessed by many people. Due to unrest in the north of England, the professional executioner had been sent there and so Margaret’s executioner was inexperienced and made a mess of it. She did not refuse to put her head down on the block or run around the scaffolding but died with dignity. I highly recommend this book not just for the information on Margaret Pole’s life but also for the excellent historical research that went into the writing.

Book Review: “Crown of Blood” by Nicola Tallis

The subtitle of this book is “The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey”. There are several biographies available on the life of Lady Jane Grey. This is a new one by historian Nicola Tallis published in December 2016.

I have to give Ms. Tallis a lot of credit. This is a well-written, well-footnoted and obviously well researched look at the life of Lady Jane Grey. Tallis gives us a great deal of detailed background on Jane’s family. I especially liked the description of Jane’s father, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. He has a well-deserved, disreputable reputation and Tallis explains why.

Tallis also has examined the reputation of Jane’s mother Frances Brandon. She believes the status of Frances’ character has suffered because of one comment by Jane in an interview. I believe Nicola is right. It is easy to lay 21st century values on the past which is what has happened here with Frances. If we examine Frances’ manner in dealing with the ever-changing politics of the Tudor era, she appears to have survived where the rest of her family didn’t. This is greatly to her credit.

As for Jane, Tallis describes her family life, her education and her correspondence with learned Protestants on the continent, her marriage and her elevation to the throne of England and her downfall in spectacular detail. It is almost as if you are there with Jane. Tallis uses direct quotations from primary sources to tell Jane’s sad story.

There is a section of wonderful color illustrations in the book with portraits of the main players. There are genealogical tables for the house of Tudor, Grey and Suffolk and a timeline of Jane’s life. The appendixes cover the lack of portraits of Jane, a transcript of her debate with Dr. John Feckenham shortly before her death and a list of places to visit to follow in Jane’s footsteps. Tallis has written a very comprehensive bibliography which is a valuable resource for Tudor historians. I cannot recommend this book enough. It was hard to put it down.

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: “Golden Age Ladies” by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

Golden Age ladies book cover

The subtitle of this book is “Women Who Shaped the Courts of Henry VIII and Francis I”. Since I’m interested in women and Tudor and French history, I had to read it! England and France have a significantly entwined history. The book doesn’t disappoint as it has a panoply of women, explaining how their stories are all interrelated.

All the important women of these two courts make an appearance. Soberton gives us a list of characters for France and England along with genealogical tables. Interestingly, she starts out with Louise of Savoy, mother of King Francis I who learned statecraft from the formidable Anne de Beaujeu. Now here is a woman who witnessed so much history. The devoted mother of King Francis and his sister Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, Louise virtually ran the government of France while her son whiled away his time pursuing pleasures such as the hunt, women and warfare. Louise’s shining moment came when the Ladies Peace of Cambrai was negotiated in 1529 between her and her sister-in-law Margaret of Savoy, Regent of the Netherlands. The two women single-handedly brokered peace between France and the Habsburg Empire and Louise secured the release of her grandsons who had been held hostage. A marriage between King Francis and the Holy Roman Emperor’s sister Eleanor was part of the Ladies Peace. Her sad story is also included here.

Along with Louise and her daughter, we meet Queen Anne of Brittany and Claude de Valois and her many daughters, some of whom died and some who became Queen’s themselves, such as Madeleine de Valois. Interwoven with the lives of these French women are those from the court of King Henry VIII of England. Henry’s sister Mary married King Louis XII of France. Although she was queen for a few months, she went on to make a love match with her brother’s best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Soberton gives us a description of the grand summit of The Field of the Cloth of Gold where Queen Catherine of Aragon met Queen Claude. Of course Anne Boleyn plays a significant role in the book as she spent time with Margaret of Savoy at her court in Mechelen and also worked as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Claude. In fact, Soberton gives us an economical description of all of Henry’s wives.

Soberton gives us many descriptions and small glimpses of personal moments in these women’s lives. This is what I liked best about the book. She has obviously done her research. There are photographs and a nice select bibliography if you are interested in more information. I found this book fun to read and enjoyed all the interconnecting stories. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Jane the Quene” by Janet Wertman

Jane the Queen book cover

There are many readers who enjoy historical fiction from the Tudor era. I used to be one of them and have many fond memories of reading the delightful books of Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts. Due to the constraints of historical research, I haven’t read any fiction for years. But I thought I would make an exception for my friend Janet Wertman and read the first book of her Seymour Saga.

What a delight this book is! Wertman’s premise is that Jane Seymour was the plain sister in the family and all she really wanted was to get married. The story opens with Jane working as a lady-in-waiting for Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII and the Queen are about to go on summer progress. Jane is sent to the family home of Wulfhall to oversee the preparations for the King’s visit. While Henry VIII is there, he and Jane have a moment in the garden and that’s where Jane’s romance begins.

Jane’s prospects improve from that moment on. Wertman includes all the iconic moments in Jane’s life. There’s the day Anne Boleyn caught Henry with Jane in his lap and the famous scene where Henry tries to give Jane a bag of coins and a letter. Jane refuses the gifts with great aplomb. I love Wertman’s dialogue throughout the book. All the famous characters from the Tudor court are here: Jane’s brothers Edward and Tom, her sister-in-law Anne Seymour, her sister Elizabeth, Thomas Cromwell, Ralph Sadler, the notorious Anne Boleyn and of course, Henry VIII in all his royal splendor.

The scenes of the birth of Jane’s son Edward and her death as written are very vivid and moving. There’s a lot of insight into what Jane, Edward Seymour, King Henry and Thomas Cromwell are thinking, their behavior and their motivations. This book took me back to those Jean Plaidy days. I think any reader would enjoy the book and highly recommend it. I’ll be looking forward to the rest of the Seymour Saga from Janet.