Book Review: “The Myth of Bloody Mary” by Linda Porter

This is the third biography I’ve read on my list in doing research. While they have all been good so far, this is the best for several reasons. It is clear that Mary has been much maligned by the vicissitudes of history. She is hated and misunderstood and is best remembered for the burning of heretics during her reign, mostly due to the work of John Foxe and his “Book of Martyrs”. Porter does a masterful job of cutting through all the myths and gives us incredible insight into the personality of Mary and the circumstances of her time as Queen of England.

Ms. Porter gives us a vision of what Mary was thinking from an early age and how she was treated by her parents. In the beginning, Mary was considered a sparkling princess, given a household of her own, the best classical education and music instruction, beautiful clothes and jewels. Even though she was not in the presence of her parents for any extended period of time, she adored them. This made it all that much harder for her to accept the high intensity treatment by her father when Henry VIII repudiated her mother and demoted Mary’s status. For a long time, Henry didn’t acknowledge Mary as his heir. He finally did and then withdrew the endorsement.

Mary never recovered from the stress of her complete and utter submission to her father. She then spent several years in relative peace, keeping her thoughts to herself and out of trouble. When her brother Edward VI reigned, Mary was under pressure again. When he died, Mary faced her greatest challenge. There were those who put forth Jane Grey as Edward’s successor and Mary risked all to take the throne from Jane. It was a great triumph and showed Mary’s courage and tenacity.

Once Queen, Mary had many issues to contend with. Her council was always at odds. Her choice of husband didn’t go down well and her phantom pregnancies were highly unusual. Philip did treat her appropriately and with complete respect but left England as soon as he could. There were several rebellions against her but she rose to the challenge and deflected the danger. Her efforts to return England to the Catholic Church didn’t make much headway. The kingdom suffered from famine and pestilence in the last year making things that much more difficult for Mary. In the end, Mary herself succumbed to the rampant influenza.

I loved this book for the insight into Mary’s personality and Mary’s vision for England. Of the three books so far, Porter gives the best explanation of Mary’s persecution and execution of the Protestant martyrs, putting it into the context of what was happening in Europe at the time. She also explains how Mary paved the way for her sister Elizabeth, giving her a template and good foundation for her long reign. Porter goes a long way toward restoring Mary’s reputation as the first English Queen Regnant. This is a really balanced reflection on her accomplishments.

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.

Book Review: “Bess of Hardwick ~Empire Builder” by Mary S. Lovell

Bess of Hardwick cover

The Freelance History Writer is scheduled to go to the United Kingdom later this year on a tour following in the footsteps of Mary Queen of Scots. Needless to say, I am thrilled! So, in preparation, I’m trying to do some reading by some of the authors who will lecture on the tour and about some of the personalities related to Mary Queen of Scots. Mary was held captive by Queen Elizabeth I in England for nearly twenty years. For the first fifteen years, her jailer was George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury and his formidable wife, Elizabeth Shrewsbury, otherwise known as Bess of Hardwick. One of our lecturers on the tour will be Mary S. Lovell who has written this biography of Bess.

This volume has been on my to-read shelf for quite some time so I was happy to give it a look. What a huge and very pleasant surprise. As Lovell tells us in the introduction, Bess is best known as the builder of some great houses in England such as Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth which we will visit. Bess and her children are the founders of the Dukedoms of Devonshire, Portland and Newcastle as well as the barony of Waterpark. Lovell is not the first biographer of Bess but she feels Bess hasn’t been presented properly by these prior authors. Previously she has been interpreted as being a shrew and as having a stormy relationship with Queen Elizabeth. Lovell spent many years pouring over volumes of letters, financial accounts and manuscripts by and about Bess and found no evidence for these portrayals. What she found was a strong, intelligent and entrepreneurial woman who got along well with Queen Elizabeth. In fact, she was a valued friend of the Queen.

Bess was married four times and had numerous children and step-children. Lovell gives us not just the details of Bess’ life but a full accounting of the lives, marriages and careers of her four husbands. This really enhances the biography as all the men are quite interesting. There are many twists and turns to this story, especially within all the family dynamics and dysfunctions. One of Bess’ husbands may have even been killed with poison by one of his brothers. Lovell tells us about Bess’ adroitness at handling her housekeeping duties, how she fed her family and servants, how much money she spent, how she entertained noble guests, her building projects and how she furnished her homes.

The years of the captivity of Mary Queen of Scots in the Shrewsbury household really bring to light the personality of Mary. I love the descriptions of how Bess and Mary sat together and labored at their embroidery. There are tapestries in Bess’ great homes still in existence that were worked on by Mary herself which I hope to see on the tour. Mary comes across as a conspirator who used her infamous charms and various methods to try to escape her jailer, even working to split up the marriage of Bess and her husband George. While this isn’t the only reason for their break up, Mary’s connivance certainly didn’t help the marriage.

This book isn’t just a biography of Bess and her husbands and family. It’s full of great details on the social history of the Tudor era. Born during the reign of King Henry VIII, the many changes in the monarchy during her eighty-one years affected her and her family in so many different ways. I especially enjoyed the insights into the operations of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers. Lovell explains how Bess and her husbands negotiated their service at court with the management of their estates. Bess, through marriage and adept handling of her finances became a wealthy woman in her own right. This book is an easy and intriguing read and I highly recommend it.