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.

Book Review: “Margaret of Anjou: Queen of England” by Philippe Erlanger

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In my research into the queens of England, I’ve been looking for a conventional biography of Margaret of Anjou. A contemporary biography of her doesn’t exist. This one was first published in 1961 in French under the title of “Marguerite D’Anjou et La Guerre Des Deux Roses” (Margaret of Anjou and the War of the Two Roses). This English version was published in 1970 and translated by Edward Hyams. Erlanger was a well-known French biographer who wrote many historical books before passing away in 1987. Just as an aside, he was the originator of the idea of the Cannes Film Festival which began in 1939.

Erlanger says in his introduction: “Nearly five centuries after her death an impartial Frenchman, brought up in his country’s traditions, but who is a friend and admirer of England, has tried, using modern methods, to review the indictment whereby posterity tried Henry VI’s fascinating queen, and ultimately condemned her.” I have to say I enjoyed reading a French writer’s view of English history!

At times this book reads like a novel and at other times like true history. Because this book was written in the 1960’s, he pretty much condemns Margaret as having taken many lovers. This has largely been disproven by now as propaganda from her political enemies. If you can get past this, the narrative is enjoyable. The first part of the book covers Europe in 1430 and then describes Margaret’s upbringing by her grandmother Yolande of Aragon at the court of Anjou. This pretty much sets the stage for Margaret’s extraordinary knowledge of statecraft that should have served her well in England during the chaos of her husband’s reign. However, she was a woman and she was French so her tactics didn’t have too much influence over the warring nobles of her husband’s court.

The author goes into great detail about Margaret’s life and the politics of England. There are some photos in the book and some genealogical tables, a limited bibliography but no index. As mentioned, if you can get past some of the historical flaws and drawbacks in the book, I highly recommend it. It will give the reader a better understanding of the Wars of the Roses and the uncommon life of this queen.

Book Review: “The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine” by Michael R. Evans

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Everybody loves Eleanor of Aquitaine. But did you know there are a lot of myths and legends that surround her story? Michael Evans has studied all the evidence from primary sources forward in an effort to find the real story of this popular Queen.

Evans begins by saying the actual evidence of Eleanor’s life is scarce and a lot of it is written by chroniclers hostile to her politically. He also argues that she is not any more extraordinary than any other medieval woman of her time based on the historical evidence. He then recounts the two categories of stories about her: the Black Legend and the Golden Myth.

The Black Legend myths include how she killed the fair Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry II and the stories of her alleged incest with her uncle Raymond of Toulouse. He tells how the legend of the murder of Rosamund first appeared and then grew hugely out of proportion. The evidence of the incest is negligible but it was common practice to blacken a powerful woman’s name with tales of sexual misconduct.

The Golden Myth includes the stories of Eleanor dressing as an Amazon to go on Crusade and how she and her daughter Marie presided over scenes of courtly love in Poitou. Both of these myths were debunked a long time ago but he shows how they got started and continued to have life in books and literature. (For more on the legends surrounding Eleanor’s life, click here.)

There is quite a bit in the book about how Eleanor has appeared in literature, fiction and non-fiction, on stage, in the movies and on television. Katherine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter” is especially commended in her portrayal of Eleanor. Anyone who is interested in Eleanor will not be disappointed in this book. It sheds an eye-opening light on her story. It is my opinion that Eleanor’s life was remarkable even without the legends.

Book Review: “Clash of Crowns” by Mary McAuliffe

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Found this book while browsing at the local bookstore. It looked pretty interesting. The subtitle is “William the Conqueror, Richard Lionheart, and Eleanor of Aquitaine” and at the top of the cover it says “A Story of Bloodshed, Betrayal, and Revenge”. Sounds great doesn’t it?

Well, it is. McAuliffe obviously has a great passion for this era of French and English history. The book was inspired by the great fortification Château-Gaillard in France which was built by Richard the Lionheart during his clashes and wars with Philip Augustus II, King of France. She uses this castle to tell the story of Richard, beginning with the Viking Rollo, the first count of Normandy. The story progresses down to Rollo’s descendant William the Conqueror who became King of England in 1066.

William’s grand-daughter, Empress Matilda should have been Queen of England when her father King Henry I of England died. But her cousin Stephen got to England first causing the period of strife called the Anarchy while Matilda and Stephen fought for the throne. Eventually, Matilda’s first born son by Geoffrey of Anjou became King Henry II. Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine and had several sons who rebelled against their father.

All of this is recounted in this book in the context of European medieval history. McAuliffe brings all of these historical characters to life with all their admirable qualities and their foibles. She gives a detailed description of the fighting between Lionheart and Philip Augustus. Lionheart built the magnificent and modern fortress of Château-Galliard to safeguard a crucial point of defense in an effort to maintain possession of the duchy of Normandy. The castle was called Richard’s “Proud Daughter”. The final attack and siege of the castle by Philip is described in detail. It makes for fascinating reading.

Anyone who loves English and French medieval history will enjoy this book. It is well organized, and researched and well written. It includes a bibliography, illustrations, maps, a chronology and a list of key people in the story. Even if you know the history it’s a fun read and if you don’t, it’s a great introduction.

Book Review: “The Sister Queens: Isabella & Catherine de Valois” by Mary McGrigor

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There is very little existing historical information on Isabella and Catherine de Valois. Both were the daughters of King Charles VI and Queen Isabeau of France and both women were Queens of England. This book reflects this sparsity of information.

If you are expecting lots of detail of the lives of these two women, you will be sorely disappointed. However, if you are looking for compelling medieval French and English history, this book fits the bill. McGrigor puts these women into their context and fills in the blanks with good storytelling about the early lives of Isabella and Catherine. Isabella’s husband Richard II lost control of his government and was forced to abdicate the throne to his cousin Henry IV. It took some time but Isabella was finally allowed to return to France and was married to her cousin Charles of Orleans who was much younger than Isabella. This may have turned out to be a successful marriage according to McGrigor. Isabella had a daughter Jane and then died shortly after giving birth. McGrigor continues the story of Jane in this book.

Catherine was the youngest daughter of Charles and Isabeau. Her story is woven within the context of the Hundred Years War and the aggression of King Henry V of England who she eventually married. McGrigor gives us a good accounting of the life of Catherine in England and also of the politics in France during the reign of Catherine’s son Henry VI who was King of France as well as King of England. These details give the reader a good understanding into what led up to the Wars of the Roses in England.

However, I do have a few issues with this book. McGrigor is perpetuating the myth of the bad reputation of Isabeau of Bavaria of being a bad mother, having many lovers and being dissolute. This has all been debunked by several historians. The other issue that is a problem is the many grammatical and typographical errors in this book. I would venture to guess about a third of the dates are transposed and incorrect. For example, a date which should read 1422 reads 1522 or 1322. The History Press is doing a disservice by either not hiring editors to correct these errors or if they do hire editors, they do a terrible job. These issues aside, I would recommend this book for those who are interested in English and French medieval history.

Book Review: “The Seymours of Wolf Hall: A Tudor Family Story” by David Loades

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It seems the Seymour family is more interesting than they appear on the surface. Most who know Tudor history are familiar with Jane Seymour, third wife of King Henry VIII and mother of King Edward VI. Others may have heard of Jane’s brothers, the dour Lord Protector Edward, Duke of Somerset and the swashbuckling Thomas, Baron Seymour of Sudeley and Lord Admiral. This book goes into even more depth about the family.

The introduction and initial chapter traces the Seymour ancestry back to France and how they migrated to England. I found the information on Jane’s father Sir John Seymour to be of great interest. He was a man of means and had ties to the court but didn’t spend much time there, choosing to live in Wiltshire and tend to business at home. Edward and Thomas were introduced to court and had valid careers in the navy, as gentlemen of the court and in Edward’s case as a successful soldier.

There are chapters in the book dedicated to Jane, Edward, Thomas and other siblings. Something I found most interesting was how Henry VIII really took a liking to Edward and rewarded him. He was very much part of the inner circle of the King. In addition to being the uncle of Edward VI, this is how he earned his important place on the council to rule England during Edward’s minority after Henry’s death. Loades also clarifies the reasons for Edward’s downfall. Thomas is by far the most attention-grabbing figure in the family. Mercurial and indiscreet, he seems to have set in motion all the mechanisms for his own downfall. The last part of the book traces the descendants of Edward Seymour and his wife Anne Stanhope down to the present day.

I’ve never read anything by Loades before and he certainly has the credentials of a competent historian. He puts his own spin on all aspects of this family which I found new and refreshing. Because of this, I recommend this book. My only quibble is the format of the book. It seems the author penned the book and sent the manuscript to the publisher and it was published straight from that. The paragraphs all run together and there are some grammatical and punctuation errors. Most egregiously, there is no index for the book. The publisher could have engaged the services of an editor to correct these errors but it doesn’t detract from the history as presented by the author.