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: “Catherine of Braganza” by Janet MacKay

Mackay Braganza book cover

 

I’ve been doing some research on the seventeenth century and found a used copy of this book, originally published in 1937.  MacKay wrote this twenty-nine years after Lillias Campbell Davidson wrote her definitive biography.  I have been unable to find any biographical information on MacKay, who authored one other book.

There are many primary sources documenting Catherine’s life.  MacKay’s writing is flavored with description and fantasy but overall she adheres to the historical truth.  I found Mackay has a considerable amount of insight into the personalities of Catherine of Braganza and King Charles II and it makes for interesting reading.

The first chapter on Catherine’s life is short, about twenty pages but this is the only part of Catherine’s life that is not well-documented.  The narrative then picks up momentum and describes the various negotiations regarding her marriage to Charles II, the newly restored Stuart King of England.  There’s a great description of Catherine’s leave-taking of her mother, her brothers and her beloved Portugal.  Once she is in England, her troubles begin with the difficult Lady Castlemaine and Charles’ insistence that she relent in allowing Castlemaine to become a Lady of the Bedchamber.

MacKay gives a succinct and compelling retelling of the Popish Plot which threatened Catherine’s life.  Although her time in England had its ups and downs, Charles stood by her the entire time.  She was devastated by his death in 1685.  Catherine remained in England another seven years and worked tirelessly to return to Portugal.  Her marriage contract allowed this but she had a difficult time getting a ship to take her home and some illness which delayed her.  Astonishingly, there are eighty letters written by Catherine in the British Library, many of them written to her brother regarding arrangements for her return to Portugal.  MacKay quotes these letters extensively to tell the story.

The last few years spent by Catherine in Portugal are well covered here.  The book has several portraits.  There is an adequate bibliography but it is poorly footnoted as many books were from this era.  Nonetheless, MacKay has written an insightful biography which I enjoyed very much.

Book Review: “John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey’s Father-in-Law” by Christine Hartweg

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland is an enigmatic character in Tudor history. He makes his appearance during the last days of King Henry VIII and came to great prominence during the reign of King Edward VI. He was largely responsible for the execution of Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and for the short reign of Lady Jane Grey.

Christine Hartweg has a fascination for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the great favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. By extension, she has done meticulous research into Leicester’s father resulting in this biography. There is great detail here on the personal life of John Dudley including his early life and the execution of his father after the death of King Henry VII. It is interesting to note he had a devoted relationship with his wife, Jane Guildford. Her father had been Northumberland’s mentor and the couple had a large and loving family.

Hartweg recounts Northumberland’s rise to power including his clashes with the Duke of Somerset and his close mentoring of King Edward VI. Northumberland was a great proponent of the Protestant religion. This led him to influence King Edward to modify his will and name his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor. Northumberland arranged a marriage between Jane Grey and his son Guildford. It is uncertain if he forged this match specifically so his son could be king and he could retain some of his power. This is an intriguing question.

Another intriguing question is whether Northumberland genuinely repudiated his Protestant faith and became a true Catholic. Or was he just trying to save his own skin? The truth is we will never really know. It is clear that Queen Mary I didn’t believe him and Northumberland was unable to avoid execution. There are no definitive answers to these questions but Hartweg does a great job with the historical evidence and gives us all the possibilities. This book is highly recommended for those interested in the career of John Dudley.

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.

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: “Richard III: A Ruler and His Reputation” by David Horspool

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As 2016 ended, I came across a list of historians and books they recommended for the year. Two of the historians named this book as one of the best. Naturally, I had to see why.

This book was billed as a “dispassionate” biography of Richard III. Horspool is the history editor of the “Times Literary Supplement” and has written several other history related books. I agree this biography is fair and even handed in its assessment of Richard’s character. Like Paul Murray Kendall’s book, Horspool begins with Richard III’s childhood and ends with his death. He has the advantage of knowing of the discovery of Richard’s bones.

In addition to recounting Richard’s life, Horspool goes into detail about the background of his family. He talks a lot about the politics of the Wars of the Roses era and many of the major players. Most importantly, Horspool scrutinizes Richard’s reputation. He goes into the ostensible Tudor propaganda and Shakespeare’s influence. There is some good information on Laurence Olivier’s interpretation of Richard in film and other historian’s writings.

Horspool is especially interested in the Richard III Society and discusses the society’s history and workings. He attended several meetings and his interpretation of the society is most interesting. He basically says the Society is fighting an uphill battle. He states that whether Richard was a bad man or not, he was a bad king and brought about not only his own destruction but that of his dynasty. His record of failure is hard to overturn. This book is very readable, open-minded, objective and impartial and I recommend it.

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

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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.