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: “Yolande of Aragon (1381-1442) Family and Power” by Zita Eva Rohr

The subtitle of this book is “The Reverse of the Tapestry”. Rohr is using the image of the reverse side of a tapestry to describe the life of Yolande. There were many threads woven by Yolande in her diplomacy during the complicated Hundred Years War.

Yolande is an amazing woman. Born in what is now Spain, she grew up in the cultured and educated court of her parents. Several marriages were discussed for her but she was eventually wed to Louis II, Duke of Anjou and titular King of Naples. This brought her into the sphere of the Valois kings of France and the infighting of the nobles during the Hundred Years War. Yolande was a competent and able administrator and adept negotiator. Although there is no documented evidence, historians are pretty certain she was instrumental in introducing Joan of Arc to Charles VII, thereby creating a turning point in Charles’ fortunes. Yolande’s motivation throughout all of her life was the advancement of her family.

Rohr’s book is not a conventional biography. In fact, this is an academic work and is aimed mostly at history faculty and graduate students. I found the writing to be pedantic and for the most part off-topic. The order of the information provided is scattered. It wasn’t until the third chapter (the book is only 199 pages long) that we start to get a glimpse of Yolande as a woman and politician. This is the point where the book gets interesting. Perhaps it is due to the lack of sources that we don’t know that much about Yolande.

I would not recommend this book to a casual reader. It is expensive and not an enjoyable read. However, for an historian, Rohr has done her research and lays out what she found in the sources giving us what little is known about Yolande and her interpretation of her life. A conventional biography on this pivotal personality in Angevin and French history has yet to be written.

Book Review: “Warfare in Medieval Brabant 1356-1406” by Sergio Boffa

After reading Richard Vaughan’s four part series on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, my interest in the history of the Low Countries was piqued. The medieval duchy of Brabant, along with Flanders, Holland, Hainault and Artois were all coveted by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in the mid-to late fourteenth century. Brabant was one of the most powerful of these principalities in the Low Countries and was subject to internal and external turmoil.

Boffa begins this book with a chapter on all the many conflicts experienced by Brabant during this time. John III, Duke of Brabant had no male heir and died leaving three daughters. He named the eldest, Joan as his successor and she married Wenceslas of Luxembourg. Joan would rule Brabant as duchess for almost fifty years, even after the death of her husband. A war of succession broke out after the death of John III. Louis of Male, Count of Flanders was married to Joan’s sister Margaret and thought he had a claim to the duchy. In addition, Brabant was engaged in some attacks on the Duchy of Guelders and other surrounding principalities attacked Brabant. It was a series of long drawn out conflicts. In the end, through alliances, Brabant was drawn into the Hundred Years War and finally succumbed to being annexed into the Burgundian Empire.

After these chapters of overview, Boffa tells us more details about medieval warfare in this era. He covers the place of warfare in the history of Brabant, the causes of war, the different phases of the war and the strategy and tactics. Next he recounts the powers that were engaged in the warfare such as the Duke and the Duchess and their entourage, the household and the Ducal Council. The combatants during the war included the nobility and chivalry of Brabant, the urban militias, mercenaries, the artillery and the specialists.

The most interesting chapters explain the organization of the armies, the revenues of the Duke, the declaration of war and mobilization, the movements of the troops, the means of transport, encampment and lodgings, provisioning, how orders were transmitted and the structure of the army. This is the most interesting part of the book. I found a notable anecdote here. Boffa explains that in the Low Countries, oats were fed to the horses. In the armies of England, the soldiers ate oats! The end of the book has an explanation of the size of the Brabançon army and military obligations and contracts in the Middle Ages. This is most definitely an academic and specialized book but anyone interested in the subject of medieval warfare will find it has substantial details about how armies worked.

Book Review: “The Princely Court: Medieval Courts and Culture in North-West Europe 1270-1380” by Malcolm Vale

This is a very informative academic work that considers the historical evidence of court life in the time period listed. Vale looks at the courts of England, Flanders, Brabant, Artois, Hainault and Holland. Interestingly, the first chapter considers the definition of “court” which historians are still discussing to this day. Vale explains there is no definitive definition.

Items discussed in the book include: Organization and structure of medieval princely households, consumption and expenditure, economics and accountancy, transport and logistics, residences and lodgings, court life and culture including courtly pursuits, ritual and ceremony. And finally, court art and style and court patronage. There is an explanation of livery and how the prince delivered clothing or cloth at certain times of the year to servants of the household and the different types of material they were made of. The household was also provided with food, a place to sleep, wood for fires and candles, etc.

Medieval households were rarely static and they traveled between castles and manors and sometimes stayed in inns or monasteries. I enjoyed the discussion on princely court pursuits. Vale talks about how important gambling was at court and playing games of skill and chance. The most popular games were chess, dice and tables. Hunting and the cult of the chase was a leading pursuit. This involved the keeping of horses, hounds and falcons. In addition to providing entertainment, hunting supplied the court with food.

This book has many black and white illustrations to demonstrate the author’s points. The book provides a large collection of charts and tables translated from the primary sources on many different topics and also several appendices. This is a detailed study of court life for anyone interested in the topic.

 

Book Review: “Charles the Bold” by Richard Vaughan

The final volume of Richard Vaughan’s four part series on the Valois Dukes of Burgundy does not disappoint! I have found Charles the Bold to be a fascinating historical personality for many years. Initially I read the biography of him by Ruth Putnam which was written in the early twentieth century. She relied on and quoted only primary sources and it is a really good read. Vaughan’s book is certainly more technical and doesn’t have as much of the personal information on the Duke that Putnam has.

Vaughan mostly concentrates on Charles’ pursuit of warfare and suppression of rebellions which define his rule as Duke of Burgundy. There is a good deal of reference to the hatred between Charles and King Louis XI of France, the subject of quite a bit of interpretation and discussion by historians. I really liked this aspect of the book. He also gives some detail on Charles’ marriages, his personality and his court.

Most interesting of all is the discussion of Charles’ many campaigns and warfare. Vaughan explains where he recruited his troops, how he gathered supplies, how he organized the campaigns and how he had weapons manufactured and delivered. Vaughan describes Charles’ talent and supreme ability to create and publish ordinances and organize troops. However, this didn’t translate into victories on the battlefield for him.

By far the best part of this book is the last few chapters where Vaughan recounts the conflict that arose in what is now Switzerland that resulted in Charles transporting his army there to fight. The descriptions of the last three battles he fought at Grandson, Murten and Nancy are gripping reading and spellbinding history. One has to wonder what motivated Charles to keep on fighting against overwhelming odds. He met his gruesome end at Nancy. They found his frozen body the day after the battle. For all intents and purposes, this was the end of the dynasty of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.

I didn’t want this series to end. These books have to be Richard Vaughan’s magnum opus. They are true masterpieces and I highly recommend all four of these books.

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: “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.