Book Review: “Crown of Blood” by Nicola Tallis

The subtitle of this book is “The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey”. There are several biographies available on the life of Lady Jane Grey. This is a new one by historian Nicola Tallis published in December 2016.

I have to give Ms. Tallis a lot of credit. This is a well-written, well-footnoted and obviously well researched look at the life of Lady Jane Grey. Tallis gives us a great deal of detailed background on Jane’s family. I especially liked the description of Jane’s father, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. He has a well-deserved, disreputable reputation and Tallis explains why.

Tallis also has examined the reputation of Jane’s mother Frances Brandon. She believes the status of Frances’ character has suffered because of one comment by Jane in an interview. I believe Nicola is right. It is easy to lay 21st century values on the past which is what has happened here with Frances. If we examine Frances’ manner in dealing with the ever-changing politics of the Tudor era, she appears to have survived where the rest of her family didn’t. This is greatly to her credit.

As for Jane, Tallis describes her family life, her education and her correspondence with learned Protestants on the continent, her marriage and her elevation to the throne of England and her downfall in spectacular detail. It is almost as if you are there with Jane. Tallis uses direct quotations from primary sources to tell Jane’s sad story.

There is a section of wonderful color illustrations in the book with portraits of the main players. There are genealogical tables for the house of Tudor, Grey and Suffolk and a timeline of Jane’s life. The appendixes cover the lack of portraits of Jane, a transcript of her debate with Dr. John Feckenham shortly before her death and a list of places to visit to follow in Jane’s footsteps. Tallis has written a very comprehensive bibliography which is a valuable resource for Tudor historians. I cannot recommend this book enough. It was hard to put it down.

Book Review: “The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: A Tudor Tragedy” by Leanda de Lisle

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen book cover

Several years ago I read a fascinating biography of Lady Jane Grey, known as the Nine Days Queen. It was written by Eric Ives and the subtitle of the book was “A Tudor Mystery”. So little is known about Jane who was a key personality in the Tudor era. I knew even less about Jane’s sisters Katherine and Mary. So when I found this book I was intrigued.

Since Ives has written a complete work on Jane, this book doesn’t really give much additional information about her. However, the information on Katherine and Mary here gives a complete picture of their lives. All these women were technically in line to inherit the throne of England based on the will of King Henry VIII and then the revisions made by King Edward VI. Edward really put these women in the spotlight, essentially putting their lives in danger, especially Jane.

Jane was used as pawn by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Just before King Edward died, Northumberland married Jane to his own son Guildford. When Edward finally died, Northumberland had Jane and his son proclaimed Queen and King. This state of affairs only lasted about ten days, until Edward’s sister Princess Mary proclaimed herself Queen and forced Jane and Guildford to become prisoners in the Tower. Jane was beheaded a few months later.

Katherine’s story is for me the most fascinating. She managed to marry a Seymour in secret without the Queen’s permission. Even more interesting, she managed to have a son. After this, Queen Elizabeth I had Katherine held prisoner in the Tower along with her husband. They were allowed to see each other while incarcerated and Katherine managed to have another son! This led to the couple being separated and Katherine died an unfortunate death a few years later. De Lisle discloses in this book that there is a first-hand account of Katherine’s death and as it’s written here, it’s very emotional reading.

The last sister Mary managed to live the most conventional life of the three women but that’s putting it mildly. She was born deformed and was a very small person. But this probably saved her life because she wasn’t seen as a serious threat to the throne because of it. She married without the Queen’s permission like her sister and was also separated from her husband. He eventually died and Mary was able to carve out a living for herself as a comfortable widow.

All this makes for a fascinating story and de Lisle does a good job here recounting the lives of the three women. I have to admit her grammar and syntax drove me a little batty and sometimes she had me wondering if I was reading historical fiction or not. But it’s a pleasant book and I would recommend it if you are interested in the subject.

Book Review: “Edward VI” by Jennifer Loach

Edward VI book cover

This biography is another volume in the Yale English Monarch series. Author Jennifer Loach, before her untimely death at forty-nine in 1995, was a Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Somerville College, Oxford. Ms. Loach started out as an historian of parliament with a specialty in the Marian parliaments but she soon widened her field of study to cover European history in general and the reigns of Mary I and Edward VI in particular, bridging the gap between Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. Most of the work on the reign of King Edward VI had been published in the early to mid-twentieth century. In 1988, Loach was commissioned to write this book for Yale University Press and spent the last years of her life solely concentrating on its writing and publication.

It is unfortunate Ms. Loach died before the completion of the book. Her husband brought her notes and computer disks to Penry Williams and George Bernard, a student of Loach’s. The Preface of the book describes how these two editors managed to complete the project, a process in and of itself that is very interesting. Ms. Loach had discussed with them how she would construct the narrative of the book so they had a clear idea of her methods. For the reader, it is apparent the book was unfinished in some places although this doesn’t detract from the basic historical information provided.

Because Edward’s reign was short, he was young and had little say in the running of day-to-day government, it is necessary to concentrate on the regencies of his regime. This encompasses the retelling of the leadership of Edward’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, later Duke of Northumberland. In this volume, there is not a lot of detail about these men’s command but it is enough to give the reader an idea of the overall impact on the reign. Dr. Loach also gives a general overview of the social and economic difficulties of the reign as well as the religious policy.

The most interesting part of this biography is about the king himself. She tells us how Edward received one of the most complete humanist educations of his era. There is some fascinating information on Edward’s court and how he enjoyed magnificence, panoply and intricate ceremony and ritual, very much following in the footsteps of his father. Edward loved to dress in sumptuous clothes and personally participate in court entertainments as a performer and in inventing them. In many ways he was a typical sixteenth century teenager albeit fortunate enough to have a superb education and access to the royal treasury.

Loach includes an entire chapter on Edward’s last illness, containing her personal thoughts on a possible medical diagnosis for what ultimately proved to be fatal. The information on Edward’s “device” for changing the succession to Lady Jane Grey is most interesting. There is a brief description of Edward’s funeral and a chapter for what followed his death with the proclamation of Lady Jane Grey as Queen and how Mary fought to claim her throne and who fought with her. There are some wonderful illustrations in the book and an appendix describing a selected list of portraits of King Edward. This is a wonderful, no-nonsense history of the life and reign of the young King Edward.