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: “Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen” by Anna Whitelock

I’m in the midst of reading several biographies of Mary Tudor which I’ve had on my bookshelves for a long time. It is an interesting exercise to see how each writer views the subject and writes about her differently. I know I shouldn’t compare but it’s hard not to.

The first book I read was John Edward’s biography which is a more academic and scholarly book. While it gives good insight into Mary’s personality, Edward’s expertise in Spanish history gives the book more of an emphasis on her marriage to Philip II as well as her mission to return the English church to Catholicism. This book is much different.

Whitelock’s writing is fast, breezy and easy to read. It seems more like novel than an academic work. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just different. There is a great deal of documentation on Mary’s life. One advantage to this volume is the author uses the subject’s real words from the archives and manuscripts of the time. This gives the book a real immediacy and increases the intrigue. I like how she quotes letters and ambassador’s documents.

The book is divided into sections just as Mary’s life was delineated. John White, Bishop of Winchester gave the sermon at Mary’s funeral. He says of Mary: She was a King’s Daughter, She was a King’s Sister, She was a King’s Wife, She Was a Queen, and by the same title a king also. So Whitelock divides the book into sections based on these parts of Mary’s life. There is a family tree, a beautiful selection of color photos and an extensive bibliography in this book. I highly recommend it. Now on to Linda Porter’s biography of Mary.

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 Women of the Cousins’ War” by Philippa Gregory et al

Apparently Philippa Gregory, a prolific writer of historical fiction, came up with the idea of collaborating with historians David Baldwin and Michael Jones to produce a book with the biographies of three women who played a significant role in the Wars of the Roses. I haven’t been able to find any primary references that state categorically that this conflict was called the “Cousin’s War” contemporaneously. If anyone can direct me to proof of this, please comment below. The women covered are Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Elizabeth Woodville herself and Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, the first king of the Tudor dynasty.

The introduction of the book is written by Gregory. It seems to be a kind of essay where she discusses the process of writing historical fiction and non-fiction. This section of the essay doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and I’m still not sure what her point is. She then goes on to discuss the history of the study of women’s history. This section is certainly more interesting. Women’s history has made great strides in recent years. But she discusses how women have been and are discriminated against in history and historical studies. She then proceeds to disparage the historical record of Margaret Beaufort, saying none of it is believable and calls her a virtuous and pious stereotype. I’m really puzzled by this. She appears she to have a bias against Beaufort and the Lancastrians.

Gregory wrote the essay on Jacquetta of Luxembourg. This chapter of the book has what little factual information there is on this intriguing woman. But it is basically a short history of the Wars of the Roses and is filled in with lots of “Jacquetta probably attended…” or “Jacquetta was possibly there…”. This basically confirms the fact there is precious information about her in the historical record which is really a shame.

The late David Baldwin, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2014, wrote the essay on Elizabeth Woodville. This chapter is an abridged version of his book, “Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower” which was first published in 2002. Of course the essay is excellent but if a reader is looking for more in depth information, I would recommend the book itself.

The essay on Margaret Beaufort was written by the expert, Michael Jones. Again, this is an abridged version of the author’s own book “The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby” by Jones and Malcolm Underwood. The essay is very good but I would also recommend Jones and Underwood’s biography or that of Elizabeth Norton if you want a complete picture of her life.

I have to say this is a strange book. I’m sure it was published with good intentions. The authors opted not to footnote their work and instead have given notes and bibliographies at the end of each chapter. There are also several black and white and color photographs, family trees, a list of battles of the Wars of the Roses and a map showing the location of the battles. If the reader is seeking quick and brief knowledge on these women and a short run down on the Wars of the Roses, this is your book. But I strongly suggest reading the full biographies for better and fuller historical material.

Book Review: “The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family” by Susan Higginbotham

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Research into the life of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of England as the wife of King Edward IV led me to this interesting little book. After reading a couple of biographies of her, it was clear she came from a large and diverse family. Her mother Jacquetta was a noblewoman from Luxembourg and had been married to the Duke of Bedford, brother of King Henry V. Bedford died not long after the wedding and Jacquetta was left a young widow with a lucrative inheritance. Permission for another marriage was required of King Henry VI. Jacquetta married Sir Richard Woodville without permission. After confessing, the couple paid an enormous fine to the king. Sir Richard was beneath Jacquetta in social standing but the marriage was successful.

The couple would have at least fourteen children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood. Once King Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, many of her siblings had a meteorite rise in social standing through marriages and through appointments to offices in the king’s government. This book is the story of these many siblings and what we know from the historical records. Higginbotham goes through each person and tells us what is known of their story. She covers who they married, what positions they were appointed to, how effective they were in office, how loyal they were to the king and what battles they fought in.

It is interesting to note that none of the men had surviving male children. There were a few daughters and some of Elizabeth’s sisters had children. At first, the family supported the House of Lancaster but after Elizabeth’s marriage, they became loyal to the House of York. Higginbotham addresses all the arguments that have been made for and against this family. She makes some very valid points in all cases. I found this book to be fair and even-handed in addressing issues with the family and would recommend it for anyone interested in the Wars of the Roses era.

Book Review: “Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen” by Arlene Okerlund

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One of the latest trends in history is to examine the lives of medieval women to shed light on and reassess the records with an open mind. In 2005, Tempus Publishing began a series of books called England’s Forgotten Queens with Alison Weir as the series editor. This book was the first to be published and a biography of Anne Neville was published in the fall of 2007. That same year, Tempus Publishing was absorbed into The History Press. It appears there were no more biographies in the series which is a shame.

Okerlund is a professor of English at San Jose State University in California. It says on the book jacket she first learned of Elizabeth Wydeville, the mother of the two princes murdered in the Tower from Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”. She discovered her bad name arose from slander spread by enemies and became determined to reveal the lies in an effort to restore Elizabeth’s reputation. It is very clear from this book Okerlund has succeeded.

Okerlund has examined the numerous sources related to this queen and considered all the possibilities and probabilities. Elizabeth had a reputation for being very beautiful. Her mother was from the nobility of Luxembourg. Her father had a long and chivalrous career serving the Lancastrian kings. She came from a pious, cultured and loving family. Yet she was slandered as being low-born and grasping. Her brother, cousin, and three sons died in the turmoil and violence that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses. She ended up dying in poverty. She left an enormous legacy as the ancestor of King Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and every other English monarch down to the present day.

Elizabeth’s life is an incredible story. With her meticulous research, Okerlund covers all the propaganda and incidences of Elizabeth’s life giving all the possible explanations. Many of the slanders against her just don’t hold up under great scrutiny. Marrying King Edward IV brought many privileges and advantages but it also brought great heartache. Many members of her family were promoted during Edward’s reign. Although Elizabeth was accused of being grasping and greedy, none of these promotions could have happened without Edward’s sanction and authority. Elizabeth was forced into the proverbial rock and a hard place many times. She was compelled to turn over her second son and to release her daughters from sanctuary to Richard III, the man who had declared her marriage to his brother as null and void and pronounced her children as illegitimate.

When it comes down to it, Elizabeth just had no choice. Once Edward died, her position was difficult if not dire. Okerlund covers all this in great detail and makes very forceful arguments. She maintains that Elizabeth was not the arrogant, grasping woman her enemies portrayed. This book includes an impressive collection of photos, genealogical tables and a thorough bibliography. She also includes a nice collection of charts. There is a timeline of Edward IV and the Wydevilles, a listing of the Wydeville family and who they married, a list of Elizabeth’s children and a timeline of events and battles of the Wars of the Roses. If you are interested in getting a different perspective on Elizabeth Wydeville’s life, I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: “Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower” by David Baldwin

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This is a very concise, no nonsense, sympathetic and non-biased biography of Elizabeth Woodville. She was the wife of King Edward IV of England and mother of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower of London during the Wars of the Roses and also the mother of Elizabeth of York who became Queen of England when she married the victor of the Battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor. This made her a matriarch of the Tudor dynasty of Kings of England.

I like the way Baldwin breaks down Elizabeth’s life into its various phases. There is little information on her early life but it was interesting to see how Elizabeth was sent to the Grey family to be educated and how she married a son of the family. Elizabeth was widowed after giving birth to two sons and then she met the king. The way Baldwin tells the story, Elizabeth and King Edward barely knew each other and their secret marriage happened very quickly. This really stands out from reading this biography. The marriage appears to have been a spur of the moment decision on Edward’s part and could possibly have been a great surprise to Elizabeth.

The early marriage was going very well but then King Edward was deposed for a short time. Because Elizabeth was English, she had no outside assistance and was forced to take sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her children while her husband was overseas. While there she gave birth to her first surviving son by the King. This must have been a very anxious time for her.

Edward did regain his throne and there was a period of peace in the kingdom until the King’s unexpected death. Elizabeth had a hard time under the reign of Richard III. It was during this time that her sons disappeared. Eventually, her eldest daughter married Henry Tudor and a new dynasty was founded. Elizabeth was forced into retirement at Bermondsey Abbey and lived in poverty the last five years of her life.

This book explains it all. Baldwin addresses all the historical mysteries of Elizabeth’s life, giving all the theories and angles. There are genealogical tables, a section of pictures, excellent notes to the text and a select bibliography. I would recommend this book for those who don’t know Elizabeth’s life and for scholars.