Book Review: “Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower” by Susan Higginbotham

This is a recent biography of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, published in 2016. It is very short at 148 pages as well as being very sparse on information on Margaret. There is a great deal of material on the court of King Henry VIII in the book as it relates to Margaret. One thing I enjoyed in reading this is Higginbotham quotes several letters and chroniclers, giving a realistic picture of the times.

The book has a nice section of color illustrations and a respectable bibliography. The appendix section gives a selection of evidence in the Exeter Conspiracy which contributed to the downfall of the Countess. Higginbotham is an engaging writer and exhibits a subtle sense of humor. She cites the work of Hazel Pierce quite a bit. For an agreeable introduction to the life of Margaret Pole, I would recommend this book. For a more detailed and academic rendering of her life, I would suggest Hazel Pierce’s biography.

Book Review: “Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541” by Hazel Pierce

The subtitle of this book is “Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership”. I knew very little about Margaret Pole other than she died for her faith and suffered a horrendous execution. First published in 2003, this appears to be the definitive biography of her. The origins of this book lie in Pierce’s thesis which she completed in 1997. Pierce is a trained historian who taught at Bangor University in Wales and she has written extensively on fifteenth and sixteenth British history and on the Pole family in particular.

This book is storytelling and historical research at its best. Pierce has meticulously studied the primary sources to piece together the story of Margaret and her family. Little is known of Margaret’s early life. There is more information about her marriage and then a good deal of data on her life after her husband’s death. What I like about this narrative is the thoughtful insight into the life of her subject. Pierce gives information on Margaret’s status at court and her connections there. She gives a list of her properties and there is a map showing their location. She tells us who her connections were, who her servants were, how she administered her properties and how she arranged marriages for her children.

There are two chapters dedicated to an assessment of the conspiracy that caused the fall of the Pole family. Here is where Pierce is at her best. She unravels the details of the Exeter conspiracy directly from the primary sources and then recounts the consequences. This is the tale of a woman whose children caused her arrest and death. Pierce pulls no punches here. She praises her subject but she is also honest in saying when Margaret and her children made mistakes. Margaret’s son Cardinal Reginald Pole does not come off in a good light here. It was very easy for him to exercise his right to criticize the king when he was in Rome. He either didn’t realize the consequences to his family or he didn’t care.

This book exposed some myths for me. There is very little evidence Margaret supported the church as other medieval noblewomen did. Her only response to the religious changes in England at the time was to not allow her servants to have the Bible in English. Her one fault as far as King Henry VIII was concerned was her loyal support of his daughter the Lady Mary.

The other mythical episode in Margaret’s life concerns her execution. Here, Pierce gives the accounts from the primary sources and explains that orders for her beheading were rushed. The execution took place in a small corner within the confines of the Tower and was not witnessed by many people. Due to unrest in the north of England, the professional executioner had been sent there and so Margaret’s executioner was inexperienced and made a mess of it. She did not refuse to put her head down on the block or run around the scaffolding but died with dignity. I highly recommend this book not just for the information on Margaret Pole’s life but also for the excellent historical research that went into the writing.

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 Making of the Tudor Dynasty” by Ralph Griffith and Roger Thomas

Anyone who has an interest in the Tudor dynasty of English kings will find this book invaluable. It should be primary reading for an understanding of where the Tudor family originated, giving essential information on their Welsh origins. Originally published in 1985, it is an extremely enjoyable to read.

Before his retirement in 2002, Ralph A. Griffiths was a Professor of Medieval History at Swansea University in Wales. He says in the preface of the book the origins of this volume began with a trip to Bosworth Field where he noticed there were more and larger portraits and greater access to information on Richard III at the battlefield center than there was for Henry Tudor. He found this distressing. Around the same time he was researching the early Tudors in Wales and he had a student, Roger S. Thomas, who had completed his doctoral thesis on Jasper Tudor. Griffiths was now prepared to make what he calls an “authoritative, coherent account of the earliest Tudors, including the Bosworth campaign itself”. He says Chapters 4-7 were heavily indebted to Roger Thomas’ work, thus requiring the listing of Thomas as co-author of this book.

The first chapter of the book covers the early Tudor family and their service to the princes of Wales, especially in Gwynedd. The early Tudors were not nobility but servants to these princes in several capacities. They were richly rewarded for their services and became wealthy landowners. Ednyfed Fychan, the early thirteenth century Tudor ancestor, had many children who continued in their service. They also tried to negotiate a path between being loyal to the princes of Wales and to the Kings of England. This state of affairs existed until the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr in 1400 when the English king came down hard on Wales with many restrictions on the country.

The most crucial descendant of the Tudor family was Owen Tudor. He married Katherine de Valois, the widowed queen of the Lancastrian king of England Henry V. The circumstances of this marriage are mysterious and highly romanticized. However, the marriage was acknowledged as valid during their lifetime and all the children born of the marriage were recognized as legitimate. The two most significant of their offspring were Edmund and Jasper. Edmund was the father of King Henry VII and Jasper, his uncle was critical to his mission to wrest the throne of England from King Richard III.

Griffiths covers this era in great detail. He also has significant information on Jasper and Henry’s exile in France as well as their mustering of an army for Henry’s invasion of England in 1485. Griffiths gives a succinct description of Henry’s march from his landing in Milford Haven in Wales to the battle site of Bosworth and of the battle itself. Henry’s victory was unexpected. Griffiths ends with a short overview of how Henry began his reign, who he rewarded and who he punished after his conquest.

This book reads like an adventure story. In addition to recounting the Tudor story, Griffiths gives us a rundown of the sources he used. There are numerous illustrations in the book that greatly add to the story. There’s a map of Tudor holdings in Wales and of Henry’s march through Wales to confront Richard III. The genealogy charts of the early Tudors are essential to an understanding of the family. I love this book and will use it in the future as a reference guide. I understand The History Press has released a new edition of the book in 2011 with a new preface. It is available as an e-book and in used editions.

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: “Richard the Third” by Paul Murray Kendall

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So it was with great trepidation that I started to read Paul Murray Kendall’s biography of Richard the Third. I absolutely loved his Louis XI, the Universal Spider book. But I had a sneaking suspicion Kendall was an apologist for old Richard III. Well, my suspicions were confirmed in the first chapter! About Richard III’s father, Richard Duke of York, Kendall says his “abilities were moderate” and “Excessive greed and ambition…seem to have been largely absent from his character”. Kendall goes on to say “It would require the unrelenting enmity of a queen (Margaret of Anjou) to remind him that he owned a better title to the throne than Henry the Sixth”. I thought, this is going to be good. But I decided to give Kendall a pass because the book was written in 1955 and a lot has changed since then.

Despite my reservations and all of its flaws, this is a fabulous book. Kendall resorts to purple prose but for the most part he relies on primary sources to tell Richard’s story. There are a few places where his bias is obvious. If the reader takes this in stride, Kendall reveals a lot of insight, not only into Richard himself but into life in fifteenth century England. He breaks down the intricate relationships between king and nobles during the conflict that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses.

He covers Richard’s life from birth until his death at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. He doesn’t mince any words about some of Richard’s actions as king. He says Richard did consider marrying his niece Elizabeth of York. He also asserts that the evidence supports the theory that the princes in The Tower died on his watch and that he was responsible even though it could not be proven in court. He devotes an entire appendix to examining the evidence about the princes. There is also another appendix where he gives his thoughts on Richard’s character. He feels Richard felt guilty about taking the throne and this colored his actions.

His comments on Richard’s condition of being a hunchback are way off base as we now know. He says the reason one shoulder was higher than the other was due his military training and using a heavy sword. He also states that Richard’s bones were thrown in a river as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII. We now know this is not true. Kendall is particularly harsh in his comments about Henry VII.

Despite all this, this book is a real page turner. It was hard for me to put it down and I was disappointed when I was finished. The chapter describing the Battle of Bosworth is masterful. I would recommend the reader read all the notes to the text in the back of the book as they are packed full of historical information. This book definitely clarifies the life of Richard III.

Book Review: “Jane the Quene” by Janet Wertman

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There are many readers who enjoy historical fiction from the Tudor era. I used to be one of them and have many fond memories of reading the delightful books of Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts. Due to the constraints of historical research, I haven’t read any fiction for years. But I thought I would make an exception for my friend Janet Wertman and read the first book of her Seymour Saga.

What a delight this book is! Wertman’s premise is that Jane Seymour was the plain sister in the family and all she really wanted was to get married. The story opens with Jane working as a lady-in-waiting for Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII and the Queen are about to go on summer progress. Jane is sent to the family home of Wulfhall to oversee the preparations for the King’s visit. While Henry VIII is there, he and Jane have a moment in the garden and that’s where Jane’s romance begins.

Jane’s prospects improve from that moment on. Wertman includes all the iconic moments in Jane’s life. There’s the day Anne Boleyn caught Henry with Jane in his lap and the famous scene where Henry tries to give Jane a bag of coins and a letter. Jane refuses the gifts with great aplomb. I love Wertman’s dialogue throughout the book. All the famous characters from the Tudor court are here: Jane’s brothers Edward and Tom, her sister-in-law Anne Seymour, her sister Elizabeth, Thomas Cromwell, Ralph Sadler, the notorious Anne Boleyn and of course, Henry VIII in all his royal splendor.

The scenes of the birth of Jane’s son Edward and her death as written are very vivid and moving. There’s a lot of insight into what Jane, Edward Seymour, King Henry and Thomas Cromwell are thinking, their behavior and their motivations. This book took me back to those Jean Plaidy days. I think any reader would enjoy the book and highly recommend it. I’ll be looking forward to the rest of the Seymour Saga from Janet.