Book Review: “Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen” by Giles Tremlett

The Freelance History Writer has previously reviewed two other biographies of Isabella of Castile:  Here and Here.

I’ve had this volume on my shelf for some time and having recently decided to do some research on Isabella, finally read it. Tremlett’s opening page has two quotes about this formidable queen. ‘No woman in history has exceeded her achievement’ from Hugh Thomas, “Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire” and ‘Probably the most important person in our history’ from Manuel Fernández Á lvarez, “Isabel la Católica”.

From the first page of this book, I was hooked. Tremlett gives us a well-organized and well-thought-out, chronological, presentation of Isabella’s life, from the reign of her father to her death. Isabella’s gutsy seizure of the throne after the death of her half-brother King Enrique IV had me on the edge of my seat. She quickly neutralized Enrique’s daughter Juana la Beltraneja to take power. It’s impossible to know if Juana was illegitimate or Enrique’s actual daughter but Tremlett makes a convincing case that she was legitimate.

Isabella’s first great political move was to marry Ferdinand of Aragon and unite their two kingdoms, even though they were ruled separately. The politics of the unification of Spain are complicated but Tremlett explains it well, telling us the good, the bad and the ugly about the rule of these two monarchs who formed an exceedingly effective partnership. He explains how Isabella ruled in a manner where she was loved and feared all at once, and does this without any judgements. There’s good information on her upbringing, her struggle to come to power, her ability to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors and her treatment of the Muslims and Jews, as well as the decision by both Ferdinand and Isabella to begin the Spanish Inquisition.

The author has a good section regarding the voyages of Christopher Columbus and other explorers promoted and sponsored by the Queen. He gives us the lives of the children of Ferdinand and Isabella. We can really get a glimpse of what her personality was really like and the dynamic of the entire family. Reading about her death and her spiritual and mental struggles is very touching. She died knowing the reign of her daughter Juana would not be successful. Tremlett manages to humanize Isabella.

While I can highly recommend all three of these biographies, Tremlett’s volume is not quite as academic in tone as Peggy Liss’ book and is somewhat more detailed than Downey’s. All three will give the reader a well-rounded view of Isabella of Castile, Europe’s first great Queen. I’m looking forward to reading Tremlett’s book about Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon.

Book Review: “Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I” by Stephen Alford

This book has been on my shelf for some time and I’ve finally had a chance to read it. My knowledge of William Cecil and his role in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign was moderate but I wanted to know more. He certainly loomed large as private secretary and as Lord Treasurer and it is clear his influence was paramount.

Alford had access to all of Burghley’s papers and this book is not really a standard biography. He concentrates on Cecil as a man with glimpses into Burghley’s personal life. There’s a good deal of information on Burghley’s homes of Cecil House on the Strand, Theobalds and Burghley house. Alford stresses how Burghley was a dynast and had a keen interest in genealogy and family trees. He kept meticulous records on every aspect of his life, personal and work related, leaving a large archive for his son Robert to utilize as a minister in Elizabeth’s government, as well as James I’s.

Alford gives lots of interesting details about what Cecil and his family ate, how he entertained the Queen when she visited, his interest in gardening, his illnesses and the hiring of doctors to treat him and the taking of the waters as a cure. The section of Cecil’s early life and his career in university is fascinating. Cecil’s family worked for the earlier Tudor monarchs and introduced William to his career in the government. Cecil worked for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I as well as Elizabeth. Contacts made when Cecil was in school served him throughout his life.

Perhaps the most compelling thing about this book is the intricate particulars of how Cecil strove to bring down Mary Queen of Scots. Alford tells us Cecil operated mostly with words and printed material. He had his own propaganda machine and intelligence network. Using these, collaborating with his protégé, Sir Francis Walsingham, they concocted a plot to implicate Mary Queen of Scots to kill Elizabeth and place herself on the English throne. This is really great stuff and worth the price of the book. For anyone with an interest in the life of William Cecil and intrigue at the Tudor court, I can highly recommend this book. A very enjoyable read.

Book Review: “Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister” by Heather R. Darsie

Anna of Cleves book cover

Everything you know about Anna, Duchess of Cleves, fourth wife of King Henry VIII, is incorrect. Even her name. She was called Anna, not Anne and was a Duchess in her own right. The author has found definitive, primary source, historical evidence that Anna’s birthday is June 28 (or no later than July 1), not September 22, 1515 as previously believed. Even the eventful first meeting between Anna and Henry didn’t go as previously advertised, according to the primary sources.

Darsie places Anna in the context of the Holy Roman Empire, German, and Low Countries history which explains why her marriage came about. She gives the background for the Von der Mark family and the various duchies that made up the patrimony of Cleves and tells how her brother Wilhelm inherited the Duchy of Guelders, thereby angering HRE Charles V and starting a series of wars. Thomas Cromwell’s fall from favor wasn’t based upon the failed marriage but had everything to do with his brokered alliance with the Low Countries and German princes and his failed foreign policy. He didn’t have the skill of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, to his own detriment.

Darsie uses her training as a lawyer to make convincing and cogent arguments that Anna’s reputation was besmirched, all in the name of obtaining an annulment of her marriage. Once it was determined the alliance with Cleves was no longer necessary, a secret commission was constituted to dissolve the union. Anna had no formal representation on this commission and it was in this covert context that Anna was declared ugly and sexually unattractive, all without her knowing.

Anna was fortunate in that Henry and his advisors wanted to keep the anger and tension with Anna’s brother Wilhelm to a minimum. Consequently, they made a generous offer to Anna of an ample income and the possession of several properties in England. She had no intention of going back to Cleves and enjoyed her life as a free woman, even if she was a little lonely. I can highly recommend this book. It should be the new definitive biography of Anna, Duchess of Cleves and required reading for lovers of Tudor history.

This is where Henry VIII may have found his arguments for annulling his marriage to Anna.

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: “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: “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.

 

Book Review: “The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company” by John Keay

honourable company book cover

 

This book was recommended to me by a history friend who specializes in eighteenth century English history.  I was looking for an all-encompassing history of the East India Company and this book fits the bill.  Keay gives a very detailed history of the earliest incarnation of the East India Company starting in the Tudor era and continuing into the Stuart reign of kings down to its liquidation in the nineteenth century.  Each ship that sets out in the early years is followed around Africa into the Indian Ocean and into Asia.

The stories told are fascinating.  Keay tells us of the brave men who went on these trips, explored the coastlines, set up factories, and bargained with native chieftains and nabobs from Japan to India to China.  Some of these outposts worked well and survived and some of the men were scandalously murdered.  Many succumbed to fever and disease.  There were pirates and private traders.  Cargoes were stolen or sunk or arrived in port in England with no problems.

The inner workings of the company are covered here with the raising of subscriptions initially and then stock being issued later.  Sometimes the profits were outstanding but many times money was lost.  The East India Company at one point was abolished and then reincarnated, causing conflict in the outlying trade posts around the world.  Eventually the company raised its own army to protect the factories.  The Company became a government unto itself, creating its own trading agreements and fighting wars.

The East India Company has a vast and varied history and this book covers it all.  Some of the writing is a little dry but there are plenty of exciting stories to make up for it.  The personalities of the men involved were quite interesting.  I would recommend this book if you are seeking an overall history of this global corporation.

Book Review: “Tea for the British” by Denys Forrest

20181124_145739

The subtitle of this book is “The Social and Economic History of a Famous Trade”.  I had no idea the history of the tea trade in Britain was so fascinating.  The author, Denys Forrest was a writer and journalist before changing careers and working in the tea industry.  Consequently he was uniquely qualified to write this book.

Forrest has researched the papers of the English East India Company and those of various tea companies in Britain.  He begins with recounting how tea first started to arrive in the country.  Early traders found tea in China where it was grown on bushes and then the leaves were harvested and brought to Europe in chests on ships.

At first tea was believed to have had medicinal purposes so it was found in chemist shops.  When Catherine of Braganza came to England to marry King Charles II, she introduced the drinking of tea for non-medicinal purposes at the Stuart court.  The trade grew and the EEC set up a building in Mincing Lane to receive and auction tea shipments.  The tea was sold in coffee shops and then grocers.  Demand became astronomical.  China limited how much trade could be done in their country so enterprising merchants brought the seeds of tea bushes to India and later Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and began growing it there to meet the demand.  Later tea was grown in Africa and even South America.  The EEC lost its monopoly in the nineteenth century and the trade in tea was opened up afterwards.

Forrest explains the different grades of tea leaves and how the tea came to be sold and consumed and innovations in the industry.  The story of how tea came to be put in teabags is really interesting.  There are lots of statistics in this book like how much tea was auctioned for and how much housewives paid for it in shops and stores, and how much tea was consumed per person in Britain.  There are stories about shops in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Norwich and histories of different vendors.

Forrest really knows his tea!  And he tells us about it with a really light touch and a keen sense of humor.  This book was published in 1973 and sadly that’s where the story ends.  He laments the invention of iced tea and wonders what will happen to the drinking of tea as the consumption in Britain had declined as the book ended.  I enjoyed this book very much.