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.

Book Review: “Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty” by Lacey Baldwin Smith

Lacey Baldwin Smith's Mask of Royalty book cover

When I was a history major in college, probably in my senior year, I took my first psychology course. Psychology turned out to be a fascinating subject and made me think about how it could be applied to history. The thought of a course in psycho-history crossed my mind but unfortunately my school didn’t offer such a course! Little did I know at the time Lacey Baldwin Smith was writing his seminal work on King Henry VIII and that is was a masterful psycho-history biography.

Many people had recommended this book to me and it was gripping from the very first chapter. Smith begins with the dying king secluded in his chamber and describes the loyal servants around him and their behavior. As many Tudor history fans know, there may have been some shenanigans during the king’s fateful final illness, especially regarding his will. Smith explains that Henry had his full faculties up until the end, perhaps blissfully ignoring the fact he was dying. But we do know there were changes made to the will and it wasn’t signed by the king’s hand but with a dry stamp. All this is very intriguing.

The book then goes into flashback so to speak to around the time Henry married Catherine Howard and most of the book recounts the years from 1540 until his death in 1547. Smith explains how Henry was given an in-depth humanist education but he certainly wasn’t the most intelligent man at court. What he was good at was remembering many minute details of all the business of governing of the realm. There are many records with Henry’s own notes written by hand that still exist to this day.

There is a most interesting chapter regarding Henry and his thinking as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Henry’s conscience was responsible for the spiritual life of all his subjects. Smith gives us a most interesting insight into what a precarious position this was for Henry and how this affected his view of the church in his kingdom. Smith examines some of the foreign policy of Henry in the later years recounting the delicate dance of power between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King François I of France.

Woven throughout Smith’s narration is how Henry’s psychological perspective and views of his place in the world influenced his reign. His insights go a long way in explaining why he did what he did in making decisions, marrying so many times and executing valuable servants. I found all of Smith’s arguments to be very absorbing and they gave me a deep understanding of not just Henry but the mindset of Tudor England overall. I couldn’t put this book down and was sad when I finished it. I can’t recommend it enough. Any reader will definitely have a better understanding of the standout king and his reign.

Book Review: “The Seymours of Wolf Hall: A Tudor Family Story” by David Loades

The Seymours of Wolf Hall book cover

It seems the Seymour family is more interesting than they appear on the surface. Most who know Tudor history are familiar with Jane Seymour, third wife of King Henry VIII and mother of King Edward VI. Others may have heard of Jane’s brothers, the dour Lord Protector Edward, Duke of Somerset and the swashbuckling Thomas, Baron Seymour of Sudeley and Lord Admiral. This book goes into even more depth about the family.

The introduction and initial chapter traces the Seymour ancestry back to France and how they migrated to England. I found the information on Jane’s father Sir John Seymour to be of great interest. He was a man of means and had ties to the court but didn’t spend much time there, choosing to live in Wiltshire and tend to business at home. Edward and Thomas were introduced to court and had valid careers in the navy, as gentlemen of the court and in Edward’s case as a successful soldier.

There are chapters in the book dedicated to Jane, Edward, Thomas and other siblings. Something I found most interesting was how Henry VIII really took a liking to Edward and rewarded him. He was very much part of the inner circle of the King. In addition to being the uncle of Edward VI, this is how he earned his important place on the council to rule England during Edward’s minority after Henry’s death. Loades also clarifies the reasons for Edward’s downfall. Thomas is by far the most attention-grabbing figure in the family. Mercurial and indiscreet, he seems to have set in motion all the mechanisms for his own downfall. The last part of the book traces the descendants of Edward Seymour and his wife Anne Stanhope down to the present day.

I’ve never read anything by Loades before and he certainly has the credentials of a competent historian. He puts his own spin on all aspects of this family which I found new and refreshing. Because of this, I recommend this book. My only quibble is the format of the book. It seems the author penned the book and sent the manuscript to the publisher and it was published straight from that. The paragraphs all run together and there are some grammatical and punctuation errors. Most egregiously, there is no index for the book. The publisher could have engaged the services of an editor to correct these errors but it doesn’t detract from the history as presented by the author.

Book Review: “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: A Tudor Tragedy” by Leanda de Lisle

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen book cover

Several years ago I read a fascinating biography of Lady Jane Grey, known as the Nine Days Queen. It was written by Eric Ives and the subtitle of the book was “A Tudor Mystery”. So little is known about Jane who was a key personality in the Tudor era. I knew even less about Jane’s sisters Katherine and Mary. So when I found this book I was intrigued.

Since Ives has written a complete work on Jane, this book doesn’t really give much additional information about her. However, the information on Katherine and Mary here gives a complete picture of their lives. All these women were technically in line to inherit the throne of England based on the will of King Henry VIII and then the revisions made by King Edward VI. Edward really put these women in the spotlight, essentially putting their lives in danger, especially Jane.

Jane was used as pawn by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Just before King Edward died, Northumberland married Jane to his own son Guildford. When Edward finally died, Northumberland had Jane and his son proclaimed Queen and King. This state of affairs only lasted about ten days, until Edward’s sister Princess Mary proclaimed herself Queen and forced Jane and Guildford to become prisoners in the Tower. Jane was beheaded a few months later.

Katherine’s story is for me the most fascinating. She managed to marry a Seymour in secret without the Queen’s permission. Even more interesting, she managed to have a son. After this, Queen Elizabeth I had Katherine held prisoner in the Tower along with her husband. They were allowed to see each other while incarcerated and Katherine managed to have another son! This led to the couple being separated and Katherine died an unfortunate death a few years later. De Lisle discloses in this book that there is a first-hand account of Katherine’s death and as it’s written here, it’s very emotional reading.

The last sister Mary managed to live the most conventional life of the three women but that’s putting it mildly. She was born deformed and was a very small person. But this probably saved her life because she wasn’t seen as a serious threat to the throne because of it. She married without the Queen’s permission like her sister and was also separated from her husband. He eventually died and Mary was able to carve out a living for herself as a comfortable widow.

All this makes for a fascinating story and de Lisle does a good job here recounting the lives of the three women. I have to admit her grammar and syntax drove me a little batty and sometimes she had me wondering if I was reading historical fiction or not. But it’s a pleasant book and I would recommend it if you are interested in the subject.

Book Review: “Sister Queens: Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile” by Julia Fox

Sister Queens book cover

In the never-ending quest to discover if Juana of Castile was really mad or not, I picked up a copy of this book to read. Having read plenty of biographies of Katherine of Aragon, I wasn’t as interested in this part of the story but Fox does present Katherine in a slightly different light which is always refreshing. But I have to confess, as I was reading the beginning of this book I became a little annoyed. It’s not really a serious biography of these two women at all.

My recent reading has been of more thoughtful biographies and analyses of history such as Bethany Aram’s “Juana the Mad” so Fox’s book seemed on the simplistic side. It reads more like historical fiction. However, that being said, the deeper I got into the book, the better I liked it. There are some great descriptions of certain events in Tudor history with some wonderful detail, essentially bringing the events to life. The recounting of the death of Katherine is really moving.

There could have been a lot more about Juana in this book but I understand why there isn’t. Juana’s time in public life was short having spent the majority of her later years in custody. And we don’t really know that much about how she actually felt or what is accurate according to the chroniclers who wrote according to their own personal agendas. I think Fox is more than fair to Juana in being somewhat neutral and not describing her as a raging lunatic.

After saying all this, I’m still going to recommend this book because Katherine and Juana are still captivating historical characters. Tudor history lovers will find it interesting and those who want to learn a little more about the sisters’ upbringing in Spain and basic facts about Juana will enjoy it.

Book Review: “Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners” by Retha M Warnicke

Wicked Women book cover

Such an intriguing title for a book! This is one of a series of eighteen books under the heading “Queenship and Power” published by Palgrave Macmillan and edited by professionals from all over the world. Retha M. Warnicke is a professor of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. She has written numerous books on Tudor England.

I was looking for a biography of Anne Stanhope, the wife of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector during the reign of King Edward VI and this book came up in a search. There is a chapter about her and she has a reputation for being somewhat of a shrew and for having some kind of feud with Queen Katherine Parr. She was accused of trying to take precedence over the Queen Dowager at social functions and of taking Parr’s jewelry. It was even rumored she had caused her husband to commit fratricide.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from this book. It is actually an academic historical argument about how six women of the Tudor era gained wicked reputations. Warnicke takes each woman and reviews the historical records, literature and chronicles where they are described as “wicked”. She follows this with the known historical facts about their lives. In some cases she describes her own personal theories about the women.

Two of the chapters deal with Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, the two queens of King Henry VIII who were executed. I was a little frustrated with Warnicke’s arguments about them. In the case of Anne Boleyn, her theory is that she was considered wicked and executed because she miscarried a deformed fetus. Really? By the time Anne was arrested, there had been plenty of preparation and political machinations for charges against her. And Henry’s eye had already strayed to Jane Seymour.

For Katherine Howard, Warnicke argues she was the victim of sexual predators. I don’t think this is in dispute. She also argues that Katherine Howard denied she had sexual relations with Thomas Culpeper. Even if she didn’t, just the fact that she met with him surreptitiously was a mistake. I’m thinking if there was even the semblance of impropriety she was in trouble. If she became pregnant, there would be questions concerning the legitimacy of the child to inherit the throne. Maybe she wasn’t wicked but her behavior certainly didn’t help her own cause.

In the chapter on Anne Stanhope, Warnicke presents the evidence that yes, there may have been a personal controversy between her and Katherine Parr but this isn’t what resulted in Thomas Seymour’s execution. She argues that the Duchess’ inability to deliver favors for those who sought help from her husband caused anger and resentment against her, creating a wicked reputation. Certainly the historical facts about the rest of her life create the impression that she was in good standing with society and maintained a good reputation with her contemporaries.

The other chapters tell us about Lettice Knollys, the second wife of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the two wives of Sir Thomas More. It is remarkable that Lettice’s wicked reputation is based on a letter confirming the marriage ceremony between her and Leicester that mentions she wore a loose fitting gown. This has been taken to mean she had premarital sex and was pregnant at the time of her marriage. Loose fitting gowns were commonplace at that time. The obstreperous reputation of the two wives of Sir Thomas is based on rather flimsy interpretations on the writings of More’s great friend the humanist Desiderius Erasmus and others. These two chapters were very interesting.

Some of the biographical information and her arguments are thought-provoking. But this is a work of academic argument, not a breezy read. The writing can be confusing so it requires patience and attention and some knowledge of the women and the era. I’m going to recommend this book with these caveats.

Book Review: “Jasper Tudor: Godfather of the Tudor Dynasty” by Debra Bayani

Jaspertudorbookcover

Jasper Tudor was the half-brother of King Henry VI of England and the uncle of King Henry VII. For his entire life, he was loyal to the Lancastrian cause during the Wars of the Roses. His support of his nephew was pivotal in the emergence of the Tudor dynasty. Before now there has not been a comprehensive biography of this enigmatic figure.

Debra Bayani had an incredible journey researching and writing this book. She says in the preface she learned about Jasper while reading an historical novel and was amazed to learn there had been no biography written about him. She immediately began doing research, traveling to Wales to find sources. She says it was not her intention to write his definitive biography but I think she has come pretty close.

It is clear in reading Bayani’s work she has gone to incredible lengths to get as much information as possible. There is great detail on the estates and incomes Jasper was rewarded for his loyalty to the Lancastrian kings as well as his whereabouts and travels. The wheel of fortune had wild turns for him as it did for many noblemen during the Wars of the Roses. For all intents and purposes, he acted as father to Henry Tudor who lost his biological father before he was born.

Of particular interest to me was the information on Jasper and Henry’s exile in Brittany and France and their efforts to raise troops and funds to invade England in an attempt to take the throne. Bayani gives us lots of particulars on this crucial mission. Jasper was amply rewarded for his support after the Battle of Bosworth. This book is filled with numerous pictures of places related to Jasper’s life. The author has also included an appendix section of many Welsh poems related to Jasper. In my opinion Bayani has done a terrific job writing this book and I highly recommend it for lovers of Tudor history.