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.

Book Review: “Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings” by Amy License

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Just being truthfully honest, I avoid the War of the Roses like it was the plague! It’s my least favorite era of English history. Enormous egos, unlikeable characters, convoluted plotting, treachery, bloody battles and cousins killing cousins, all in an attempt to take the English throne. However, there are a few appealing women that are of interest such as Cecily’s contemporary Margaret Beaufort and her daughter Margaret of York who were vigorous and effective during the conflict and have great stories. This also includes Cecily Neville, “The Rose of Raby”, mother of King Edward IV and Richard III and great-grandmother of King Henry VIII.

Amy License gives us a very thorough look at the long and fruitful life of Cecily. She has gone over all the sources to glean as much information as possible about her. There are descriptions of ceremonies and castles giving us a taste for what Cecily’s life was like. Cecily was a valuable helpmate for her husband Richard, Duke of York who had vast and rich holdings all over the country. She managed the many properties effectively while producing many children and carrying out her pious observances in the tradition of a wealthy medieval woman.

In a biography like this, the workings of the politics and infighting of the men have a bearing on the woman’s life. License gives us succinct and understandable explanations of these circumstances, giving plausible scenarios for what was happening such as why her husband made a play for the throne of King Henry VI and the role her nephew, Richard, Earl of Warwick had in the conflict. One thing I found interesting was Cecily’s friendship with Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI. Even though their husbands were at odds, they managed to have a common bond.

License gives us an abundance of details about Cecily’s life. I enjoyed the list of bequests from Cecily to her family and servants. She also gives us history and background of Cecily’s children and grandchildren as well as some of her siblings and their descendants. There are some handy family trees in the book and some great pictures of locations and portraits of people relevant to the biography. Cecily lived a long, conflict filled life and this biography does her justice. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen” by Sara Cockerill

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The title of this book is really fitting because there isn’t much in the way of historical records about this medieval English queen. Eleanor of Castile’s life was due for a new look as previous biographies were written years ago. Sarah Cockerill, an English lawyer, spent the last ten years doing in depth research on Eleanor and it really shows. She should be given much credit for this as she gives us all the facts known about Eleanor along with some fascinating insight into her personality. Eleanor’s marriage to King Edward I was obviously a love match, a real anomaly in English royal history. Cockerill gives us many tidbits on their relationship which is fascinating stuff.

That being said, this book is not an easy read. It’s badly in need of an editor. There are errors and omissions, as well as spelling and grammatical errors which are annoying. The narrative is not in chronological or any other sensible order. Due to the lack of sources on Eleanor, a large portion of the book deals with the history of the men surrounding her and the reader can easily get bogged down. For me, it wasn’t until about two hundred pages in that it got more focused on Eleanor and Cockerill’s insight began to become apparent. This isn’t a curl up with the cat and a cup of tea book but if you are looking for a good reference on Eleanor of Castile and thirteenth century English history, this book will fit the bill.

Book Review: “Eleanor of Castile: Queen and Society in Thirteenth-Century England” by John Carmi Parsons

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Eleanor of Castile is one of the few medieval queens I know very little about. Apparently there is a reason for this. Very little of historical record exists about this lady. What we do know of her is she was the wife of King Edward I of England, she went with him on Crusade, she had many children, she was a prolific collector of properties and Edward built crosses in her memory. Interestingly, there are a few books about her and John Carmi Parsons wrote one of them.

This work can be considered a quasi-scholarly effort. That being said I enjoyed this book. Parsons has separate sections. The first is a section on theme and context. Specifically he tells us how little in the way of historical records there are and gives us a biographical sketch of what we know about her. He talks a little about Eleanor’s reputation through the ages: how she is considered a grasping queen at one point and a gentle and benign queen at other times in history. He talks about her many pregnancies and births and her unexpected death at the age of forty-nine. This gives us a fairly complete biographical history of her.

The next section is about Eleanor’s prerogatives, resources and administration. Parsons goes into detail about Eleanor’s sources of revenue, her household and staff, wardrobe, exchequer and treasury, and local administration. All of this is pretty fascinating stuff because it doesn’t just relate to Eleanor alone but also other thirteenth century queens. It gives us an idea of how these women lived. Chapter three is an interesting glimpse into Eleanor’s reputation as a queen. The name of this section is “Outcry and Gossip, Rumor and Scandal”. Apparently Eleanor was well known for her acquisition of properties, most likely with Edward’s overt encouragement and her methods could sometimes be dubious judging from the evidence. Eleanor’s income apparently was inadequate and she used any means necessary to increase it.

Parson’s includes a long appendix which chronicles all of Eleanor’s procurement of property where records exist. This section is forty pages long! Even if you don’t read the whole chapter, it gives you an idea of how Eleanor spent her time and increased her income. The last chapter gives an explanation of the legend and the reality of Eleanor’s reputation. Evidently, Eleanor was concerned about her reputation and how she was perceived. On her death bed, she directed an audit of her proceedings in her property acquisitions and ordered any irregularities be made whole. This book is enlightening and I would highly recommend it. If you are unfamiliar with medieval terms such as “advowson” and “corrodies” I would suggest you keep a dictionary close by. It’s a great introduction to this elusive queen and tells us quite a bit about how medieval queens operated.

Book Review: “Edward the Elder 899-924” edited by N.J. Higham and D.H. Hill

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There is a real dearth of primary sources for historians to work with regarding the reign of the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Elder, first son of King Alfred the Great. This is a real shame because Edward did much to build the English state during his twenty-four year reign. He led many successful campaigns against the Vikings and had control over much of southern and middle of England. His influence also touched Wales and the north. He had three wives, a large family and prickly relations with the church. This book is an attempt to shed some light on the reign of this important and critical ruler.

This volume was published in 2001 and is a compendium of papers which were presented at a conference at the University of Manchester, organized by the Manchester Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies in 1999 in recognition of the eleventh centenary of Edward the Elders accession to the throne of Wessex upon his father’s death. A variety of scholars have written individual chapters using such diverse sources as coins and textiles, literature and archaeology. If the reader is familiar with Anglo-Saxon studies, some of these names will be very recognizable.

While some of the papers contained in this volume are well written and readable, some of them are not. A number of the subjects are interesting and some are esoteric and pedantic. It would depend on the reader’s preference and purpose in reading the book as to whether the chapters are useful or not. Regardless, the book brings awareness to many aspects of Edward’s reign. Personally, I enjoyed the introduction by Nick Higham on Edward’s reputation and the papers on Edward’s relationship with the church. Barbara Yorke’s chapter on Edward as Atheling was most interesting. She went into how his father worked to make him the candidate to succeed him and to protect Edward’s position. Simon Keynes has a great chapter which serves as a survey of Edward’s reign. There are specialty chapters on the coinage of Edward, how the Irish viewed West Saxon dynastic practices, the Danelaw, the shiring of Mercia, York, and an interesting chapter on the embroideries from the tomb of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. It is believed that Edward’s second wife Aelflaed commissioned these embroideries.

There are other interesting chapters here on Edward’s large family, his own marriages and how he married his daughters to men on the continent and a whole chapter on his niece Aelfwynn. Aelfwynn was the daughter of Edward’s elder sister Aethelflaed, the Lady of Mercia. When Aethelflaed died, Edward exiled Aelfwynn and basically took over the kingdom of Mercia. I found these chapters on the family relations the most interesting and in sync with my own personal research. Whether the reader of this volume is an advanced historian, undergraduate or a general reader, there is something of interest for everyone. This book will serve as the closest to a biography as we can expect until someone writes a definitive work on Edward.