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

The Seymours of Wolf Hall book cover

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.

Book Review: “Sister Queens: Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile” by Julia Fox

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In the never-ending quest to discover if Juana of Castile was really mad or not, I picked up a copy of this book to read. Having read plenty of biographies of Katherine of Aragon, I wasn’t as interested in this part of the story but Fox does present Katherine in a slightly different light which is always refreshing. But I have to confess, as I was reading the beginning of this book I became a little annoyed. It’s not really a serious biography of these two women at all.

My recent reading has been of more thoughtful biographies and analyses of history such as Bethany Aram’s “Juana the Mad” so Fox’s book seemed on the simplistic side. It reads more like historical fiction. However, that being said, the deeper I got into the book, the better I liked it. There are some great descriptions of certain events in Tudor history with some wonderful detail, essentially bringing the events to life. The recounting of the death of Katherine is really moving.

There could have been a lot more about Juana in this book but I understand why there isn’t. Juana’s time in public life was short having spent the majority of her later years in custody. And we don’t really know that much about how she actually felt or what is accurate according to the chroniclers who wrote according to their own personal agendas. I think Fox is more than fair to Juana in being somewhat neutral and not describing her as a raging lunatic.

After saying all this, I’m still going to recommend this book because Katherine and Juana are still captivating historical characters. Tudor history lovers will find it interesting and those who want to learn a little more about the sisters’ upbringing in Spain and basic facts about Juana will enjoy it.

Book Review: “Wicked Women of Tudor England: Queens, Aristocrats, Commoners” by Retha M Warnicke

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Such an intriguing title for a book! This is one of a series of eighteen books under the heading “Queenship and Power” published by Palgrave Macmillan and edited by professionals from all over the world. Retha M. Warnicke is a professor of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. She has written numerous books on Tudor England.

I was looking for a biography of Anne Stanhope, the wife of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector during the reign of King Edward VI and this book came up in a search. There is a chapter about her and she has a reputation for being somewhat of a shrew and for having some kind of feud with Queen Katherine Parr. She was accused of trying to take precedence over the Queen Dowager at social functions and of taking Parr’s jewelry. It was even rumored she had caused her husband to commit fratricide.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from this book. It is actually an academic historical argument about how six women of the Tudor era gained wicked reputations. Warnicke takes each woman and reviews the historical records, literature and chronicles where they are described as “wicked”. She follows this with the known historical facts about their lives. In some cases she describes her own personal theories about the women.

Two of the chapters deal with Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, the two queens of King Henry VIII who were executed. I was a little frustrated with Warnicke’s arguments about them. In the case of Anne Boleyn, her theory is that she was considered wicked and executed because she miscarried a deformed fetus. Really? By the time Anne was arrested, there had been plenty of preparation and political machinations for charges against her. And Henry’s eye had already strayed to Jane Seymour.

For Katherine Howard, Warnicke argues she was the victim of sexual predators. I don’t think this is in dispute. She also argues that Katherine Howard denied she had sexual relations with Thomas Culpeper. Even if she didn’t, just the fact that she met with him surreptitiously was a mistake. I’m thinking if there was even the semblance of impropriety she was in trouble. If she became pregnant, there would be questions concerning the legitimacy of the child to inherit the throne. Maybe she wasn’t wicked but her behavior certainly didn’t help her own cause.

In the chapter on Anne Stanhope, Warnicke presents the evidence that yes, there may have been a personal controversy between her and Katherine Parr but this isn’t what resulted in Thomas Seymour’s execution. She argues that the Duchess’ inability to deliver favors for those who sought help from her husband caused anger and resentment against her, creating a wicked reputation. Certainly the historical facts about the rest of her life create the impression that she was in good standing with society and maintained a good reputation with her contemporaries.

The other chapters tell us about Lettice Knollys, the second wife of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the two wives of Sir Thomas More. It is remarkable that Lettice’s wicked reputation is based on a letter confirming the marriage ceremony between her and Leicester that mentions she wore a loose fitting gown. This has been taken to mean she had premarital sex and was pregnant at the time of her marriage. Loose fitting gowns were commonplace at that time. The obstreperous reputation of the two wives of Sir Thomas is based on rather flimsy interpretations on the writings of More’s great friend the humanist Desiderius Erasmus and others. These two chapters were very interesting.

Some of the biographical information and her arguments are thought-provoking. But this is a work of academic argument, not a breezy read. The writing can be confusing so it requires patience and attention and some knowledge of the women and the era. I’m going to recommend this book with these caveats.

Book Review: “Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen” by Amy Licence

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It is very unfortunate that little historical evidence or records exist regarding the life of Anne Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick and wife of Edward of Westminster and finally King Richard III. There doesn’t seem to be enough to fill a two hundred page biography but Amy License delivers with this book. As I have mentioned before I try to avoid the Wars of the Roses but this book piqued my interest because it’s about a medieval noblewoman who became Queen of England.

This book gives us the scant detail we know of Anne and fleshes it out with interesting historical details. There is a lot of information about the Earl of Warwick, Anne’s father, known to history as “The Kingmaker”, because details of his life give us insight into the home Anne grew up in. Warwick was Captain of Calais so Anne spent a few years of her childhood in France. Warwick’s machinations in bringing the Yorkist Edward, Earl of March to the throne and his about face in supporting Margaret of Anjou’s attempt to bring her husband Henry VI back to the throne are described. Licence gives us a great lesson in these events in easy to understand narrative. This is important to Anne’s story because it explains how she came to marry Edward of Westminster, the son of Margaret of Anjou and King Henry VI.

It is also important to Anne’s story because her father was killed in battle and eventually her husband Edward was killed too, leaving her a widow in the care of her sister Isabel and her husband the mercurial Duke of Clarence, brother of Anne’s future husband, Richard Duke of Gloucester. It is interesting to note that no one knows how the marriage of Anne and Richard originated. There was opposition to the alliance and it is a mystery who first suggested it. But marry they did with no expectation they would be king and queen.

The early years of Anne’s marriage and the birth of her son Edward of Middleham are recounted. Licence tells us of the castles the couple lived in and how they acquired more property and renovated some of them, along with the religious institutions they patronized. Using contemporary sources regarding how medieval women ran their households and aided their husband’s, we can get an idea of Anne’s daily life. All of this was to change with the sudden death of Richard’s brother, King Edward IV in the spring of 1483.

Richard was appointed Protector and regent for Edward’s young son, King Edward V. In a mysterious turn of events, Edward V and his brother and sisters were declared illegitimate and the Council asked Richard to be king. King Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York disappeared in the Tower of London sometime during the summer of 1483. Richard and Anne were crowned king and queen and then circumstances seem to have unraveled over the next two years.

This book is enjoyable, easy to read and fascinating. This time period of the Wars of the Roses brings up way more questions than answers based on the existing evidence. Licence poses all these questions and leaves it up to the reader to decide what they think really happened.

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.