Book Review: “Imprudent King: A New Life of Philip II” by Geoffrey Parker

While doing research on Queen Mary I of England, I happened to find this book about her husband King Philip II of Spain. It was published by the Yale University Press in 2014 and Geoffrey Parker is a known authority on the reign of this king. Parker states he began research and the writing of a biography of Philip in the 1960’s. He states in the introduction that his first effort is 1600 pages long and trusted editors worked on that volume to produce this shortened version of the book.

Parker gained access to some papers of Philip’s reign in 2012. These documents were part of a huge collection which were stored in a vault in the Hispanic Society of America in New York City. They remained unseen from the time Philip’s secretaries had filed them away until 2012 when they were identified and catalogued. This allowed Parker to update his biography even further with this new found information.

King Philip did not allow anyone to write about his life while he lived so there are no contemporary books about him. Parker states in his introduction that his intention was to tell Philip’s life story using only Philip’s words. Philip was known as “the paper king” and left mountains of paperwork either written in his own hand or with annotations on other people’s documents. Parker succeeds in his mission to do this. It is really fascinating to read these words, giving great insight into the mind of this man who ruled an empire upon which the sun never set.

I’ve never read a biography that goes into such great detail. While some might find the minutiae irritating or boring, I found it interesting. A couple of things that struck me were how Philip ate lunch every day and would mention “come see me after lunch” or “we will work on this during lunch”. Among other things, Philip began work on one of the greatest Renaissance royal residences: El Escorial. After hearing about the building of this massive project, I would really like to visit.

Another chapter discusses genetics and the intermarriage of the Hapsburgs and how this affected their health, especially Philip’s son Don Carlos. There is a graph showing Don Carlos’ family tree. Parker explains he was the great-grandson of Juana of Castile through both is father and his mother, giving him a double dose of mental instability. And, instead of having eight great-grandparents, he only had four. No wonder his physical and mental health were unstable.

The author gives his theory on the murder of Juan Escobedo, one of Philip’s principal secretaries. He believes Philip was culpable for this murder and goes to great lengths in explaining why. It’s almost like a detective story. Parker is very good at telling it like it is about King Philip, good and bad. This is a really good read and whether the reader has knowledge of Spanish history or not will find it worthwhile.

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

lucy_walter

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.

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.