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: “Game of Queens” by Sarah Gristwood

It isn’t very often you come across a book that is nearly perfect in execution but this one fits the bill. Gristwood had done her homework in researching the history of these women, creating a most enjoyable read. The subtitle of the book is “The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe”. Her premise is the game of chess and she relates a myriad of women to the game and how it played out in the politics of the sixteenth Europe.

There were several women who emerged to rule in Europe during this period, either as regents, queen consorts or outright queen regnant. Many of readers favorite women are portrayed here: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Margaret Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, Margaret of Austria, Queen Mary I and Elizabeth I of England, Louise of Savoy, Anne of Brittany, Queen Claude of France, Catherine de Medici, Marguerite of Valois, Queen of Navarre and her daughter Jeanne d’Albret, Margaret of Parma, Mary of Hungary and my personal favorite, Anne de Beaujeu. Many of the women are interconnected. Anne de Beaujeu schooled Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy in politics and government. She wrote a book for her own daughter, Suzanne de Bourbon called “Lessons for My Daughter” that Gristwood quotes from liberally and which carries a lot of good advice for all of these women. Anne Boleyn served at the court of Margaret of Austria. Gristwood recounts how all of these stories are interrelated.

While I am familiar with most of these women’s stories, there were a few that were new to me. I really enjoyed Gristwood’s take on Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots. She has some great insight into Margaret’s personality. Some new territory for me were the stories of Mary of Hungary and Margaret of Parma who succeeded Margaret of Austria as Regent of the Netherlands for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. These women had a very difficult task, especially after the enormous social upheaval created by the Reformation. The story of Jeanne d’Albret, daughter of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre is most intriguing with the twists and turns of her marriages and her feisty defense of Protestantism.

By quoting letters and chronicles, Gristwood gives us a glimpse of all these women’s personalities allowing them to come to life. In addition to being beautifully written, this book has some nice accompaniments. There are genealogical tables, a list of dramatis personae, a section of lovely color photos and a chronology of events. Gristwood gives a nicely chosen bibliography for more in-depth reading. I cannot recommend this book enough. This is Sarah’s best work yet.

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: “The Women of the Cousins’ War” by Philippa Gregory et al

Apparently Philippa Gregory, a prolific writer of historical fiction, came up with the idea of collaborating with historians David Baldwin and Michael Jones to produce a book with the biographies of three women who played a significant role in the Wars of the Roses. I haven’t been able to find any primary references that state categorically that this conflict was called the “Cousin’s War” contemporaneously. If anyone can direct me to proof of this, please comment below. The women covered are Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Elizabeth Woodville herself and Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, the first king of the Tudor dynasty.

The introduction of the book is written by Gregory. It seems to be a kind of essay where she discusses the process of writing historical fiction and non-fiction. This section of the essay doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and I’m still not sure what her point is. She then goes on to discuss the history of the study of women’s history. This section is certainly more interesting. Women’s history has made great strides in recent years. But she discusses how women have been and are discriminated against in history and historical studies. She then proceeds to disparage the historical record of Margaret Beaufort, saying none of it is believable and calls her a virtuous and pious stereotype. I’m really puzzled by this. She appears she to have a bias against Beaufort and the Lancastrians.

Gregory wrote the essay on Jacquetta of Luxembourg. This chapter of the book has what little factual information there is on this intriguing woman. But it is basically a short history of the Wars of the Roses and is filled in with lots of “Jacquetta probably attended…” or “Jacquetta was possibly there…”. This basically confirms the fact there is precious information about her in the historical record which is really a shame.

The late David Baldwin, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2014, wrote the essay on Elizabeth Woodville. This chapter is an abridged version of his book, “Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower” which was first published in 2002. Of course the essay is excellent but if a reader is looking for more in depth information, I would recommend the book itself.

The essay on Margaret Beaufort was written by the expert, Michael Jones. Again, this is an abridged version of the author’s own book “The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby” by Jones and Malcolm Underwood. The essay is very good but I would also recommend Jones and Underwood’s biography or that of Elizabeth Norton if you want a complete picture of her life.

I have to say this is a strange book. I’m sure it was published with good intentions. The authors opted not to footnote their work and instead have given notes and bibliographies at the end of each chapter. There are also several black and white and color photographs, family trees, a list of battles of the Wars of the Roses and a map showing the location of the battles. If the reader is seeking quick and brief knowledge on these women and a short run down on the Wars of the Roses, this is your book. But I strongly suggest reading the full biographies for better and fuller historical material.

Book Review: “Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower” by David Baldwin

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This is a very concise, no nonsense, sympathetic and non-biased biography of Elizabeth Woodville. She was the wife of King Edward IV of England and mother of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower of London during the Wars of the Roses and also the mother of Elizabeth of York who became Queen of England when she married the victor of the Battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor. This made her a matriarch of the Tudor dynasty of Kings of England.

I like the way Baldwin breaks down Elizabeth’s life into its various phases. There is little information on her early life but it was interesting to see how Elizabeth was sent to the Grey family to be educated and how she married a son of the family. Elizabeth was widowed after giving birth to two sons and then she met the king. The way Baldwin tells the story, Elizabeth and King Edward barely knew each other and their secret marriage happened very quickly. This really stands out from reading this biography. The marriage appears to have been a spur of the moment decision on Edward’s part and could possibly have been a great surprise to Elizabeth.

The early marriage was going very well but then King Edward was deposed for a short time. Because Elizabeth was English, she had no outside assistance and was forced to take sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her children while her husband was overseas. While there she gave birth to her first surviving son by the King. This must have been a very anxious time for her.

Edward did regain his throne and there was a period of peace in the kingdom until the King’s unexpected death. Elizabeth had a hard time under the reign of Richard III. It was during this time that her sons disappeared. Eventually, her eldest daughter married Henry Tudor and a new dynasty was founded. Elizabeth was forced into retirement at Bermondsey Abbey and lived in poverty the last five years of her life.

This book explains it all. Baldwin addresses all the historical mysteries of Elizabeth’s life, giving all the theories and angles. There are genealogical tables, a section of pictures, excellent notes to the text and a select bibliography. I would recommend this book for those who don’t know Elizabeth’s life and for scholars.

Book Review: “The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine” by Michael R. Evans

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Everybody loves Eleanor of Aquitaine. But did you know there are a lot of myths and legends that surround her story? Michael Evans has studied all the evidence from primary sources forward in an effort to find the real story of this popular Queen.

Evans begins by saying the actual evidence of Eleanor’s life is scarce and a lot of it is written by chroniclers hostile to her politically. He also argues that she is not any more extraordinary than any other medieval woman of her time based on the historical evidence. He then recounts the two categories of stories about her: the Black Legend and the Golden Myth.

The Black Legend myths include how she killed the fair Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry II and the stories of her alleged incest with her uncle Raymond of Toulouse. He tells how the legend of the murder of Rosamund first appeared and then grew hugely out of proportion. The evidence of the incest is negligible but it was common practice to blacken a powerful woman’s name with tales of sexual misconduct.

The Golden Myth includes the stories of Eleanor dressing as an Amazon to go on Crusade and how she and her daughter Marie presided over scenes of courtly love in Poitou. Both of these myths were debunked a long time ago but he shows how they got started and continued to have life in books and literature. (For more on the legends surrounding Eleanor’s life, click here.)

There is quite a bit in the book about how Eleanor has appeared in literature, fiction and non-fiction, on stage, in the movies and on television. Katherine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter” is especially commended in her portrayal of Eleanor. Anyone who is interested in Eleanor will not be disappointed in this book. It sheds an eye-opening light on her story. It is my opinion that Eleanor’s life was remarkable even without the legends.

Book Review: “Lucy Walter: Wife or Mistress” by Lord George Scott

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I was looking into the life of the woman who was the mistress of King Charles II before he became king with the Restoration of the Monarchy in England in 1660. Her name was Lucy Walter and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on her written by Robin Clifton, this book is listed as one of the sources for the article. I knew there was no contemporary biography of her so I thought I would check it out. I happened to find a cheap used copy of the book on the internet.

It turns out that Lord George Scott is a descendant of Lucy Walter’s family and this book was published in 1947. Scott passed way in February of that year, before the proofs of the book came back from the printer. The task of reading the proofs and readying the book for publishing was taken up by Scott’s son and an assistant. The author’s intention in writing this book is to prove that Lucy Walter was in fact married to Charles.

Lucy became Charles’ mistress early on during his exile after the execution of his father King Charles I. She gave birth to a son, James Crofts, later called James Scott in April of 1649. Charles at all times acknowledged James was his natural, illegitimate son. Charles also insisted he never married Lucy Walter. He never faltered in this assertion and swore to it in front of his councilors twice. There is no existing written evidence that he married Lucy.

Scott uses this book to present many arguments that Lucy was married. He insists she came from a good family and would not have turned into a fallen woman. He cites many sources. He especially mentions the letters from Charles’ sister the Princess of Orange who refers to Lucy as Charles’ wife. He talks about witnesses to the marriage itself. He says Lucy had paperwork showing her marriage was legal and she turned this over to John Cosin, later bishop of Durham when she was on her deathbed. The papers were supposedly kept in a black box which later disappeared.

The book has some wonderful illustrations and a family tree for Lucy. It also gives some good biographical information on her life. But Scott’s convoluted arguments are presented in a jumbled order. Characters come and go in the story and it’s all very confusing. In the end, I’m afraid he is not very convincing. All of his contentions just don’t add up. In looking at other evidence, there is no doubt Lucy was a woman of loose morals and caused a lot of trouble for Charles. He son James also didn’t come to a good end during the reign of his uncle King James II. While the basic premise of the story is of interest, Scott does not succeed in his mission of clearing Lucy’s name.