Book Review: “Margaret of Anjou: Queenship and Power in Late Medieval England” by Helen E. Maurer

Margaret of Anjou Maurer book cover

In the course of my research on English queens, I searched for a biography of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI. There appears to be no contemporary biography of her which in itself is interesting but I did find this book. It’s not a recounting of her life in a biographical sense however but a thought provoking examination of Queenship and power in medieval England.

The author says she was introduced to Margaret of Anjou by seeing a performance of a Shakespearean play in Central Park in New York City. Later, while studying in school for a doctorate, she found an article where an historian called for an examination of Margaret’s role in the political upheaval in England now known as the Wars of the Roses. She ended up writing this book.

This is not an easy read as it is definitely an academic exercise. She describes the role of a medieval queen in many different spheres such as motherhood, intervention and mediation, and aiding her retainers. A medieval queen, especially one of foreign origin, could never rule directly. Any influence she had would be through her husband the king.

Maurer tells us about Margaret’s upbringing which in many ways was extraordinary. She was highly educated and due to the influence of her formidable grandmother Yolande of Aragon, learned statecraft. Her marriage to King Henry VI came with great expectations of peace between England and France after the devastation of the Hundred Years War. When Margaret came to England as a teenager, her entrance into was celebrated with hopeful allegory. Maurer gives us a long description of these celebrations.

It was only after Margaret bore a son that she started to come into her own. At the same time of her pregnancy, her husband succumbed to madness throwing the government of the realm into chaos. Margaret did what she could to preserve the power of her husband and secure the interests of him, herself and her son, working within the boundaries of a medieval queen. Despite her best efforts, there was infighting and backstabbing among the nobility who were doing the best they could to preserve their own self interests.

In the end, Margaret became the figurehead of the House of Lancaster and even led her own troops. This was not really within the realm of the powers of a medieval queen as Maurer argues here. For better or worse, Margaret did the best she could and ended up losing everything. She just couldn’t overcome the restrictions placed on her as a medieval queen.

Maurer makes some very cogent and logical arguments here. She has some insight into the men Margaret was up against in her fight to preserve the power and prestige of her family. As stated, if you are looking for a conventional biography, this book isn’t it. But I would still recommend it if you have an interest in medieval royal women’s position, function and responsibility in history.

Book Review: “Jasper Tudor: Godfather of the Tudor Dynasty” by Debra Bayani

Jaspertudorbookcover

Jasper Tudor was the half-brother of King Henry VI of England and the uncle of King Henry VII. For his entire life, he was loyal to the Lancastrian cause during the Wars of the Roses. His support of his nephew was pivotal in the emergence of the Tudor dynasty. Before now there has not been a comprehensive biography of this enigmatic figure.

Debra Bayani had an incredible journey researching and writing this book. She says in the preface she learned about Jasper while reading an historical novel and was amazed to learn there had been no biography written about him. She immediately began doing research, traveling to Wales to find sources. She says it was not her intention to write his definitive biography but I think she has come pretty close.

It is clear in reading Bayani’s work she has gone to incredible lengths to get as much information as possible. There is great detail on the estates and incomes Jasper was rewarded for his loyalty to the Lancastrian kings as well as his whereabouts and travels. The wheel of fortune had wild turns for him as it did for many noblemen during the Wars of the Roses. For all intents and purposes, he acted as father to Henry Tudor who lost his biological father before he was born.

Of particular interest to me was the information on Jasper and Henry’s exile in Brittany and France and their efforts to raise troops and funds to invade England in an attempt to take the throne. Bayani gives us lots of particulars on this crucial mission. Jasper was amply rewarded for his support after the Battle of Bosworth. This book is filled with numerous pictures of places related to Jasper’s life. The author has also included an appendix section of many Welsh poems related to Jasper. In my opinion Bayani has done a terrific job writing this book and I highly recommend it for lovers of Tudor history.

Book Review: “Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England” by Thomas Penn

Winter King book cover

I have to start off by saying Thomas Penn has written a rip roaring biography here. It is certainly easy to see how this book won the 2012 H.W. Fisher Best First Biography prize. If you are looking for an in depth survey of the reign of Henry VII, this is your answer.

Penn begins by reminding us how Henry’s reign is overlooked by many historians because of the notoriety of his son Henry VIII and grand-daughter Elizabeth I. He likens the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign to a metaphorical spring, a second coming of sorts because Henry VIII seemed to be the opposite of his father. This is why he named the book the “Winter King”.

Henry VII had a dubious claim to the throne of England based on ancestry alone. He had spent most of his early years in exile on the continent and essentially had no thought or chance of becoming King of England. But when dissent in England reared its head during the reign of Richard III, Henry’s horizon opened up to possibilities. Disenchanted nobles gathered by his side and an invasion was planned, executed and carried forth with worthy results for Henry. This part of the story is genuinely exceptional. After his victory at Bosworth Field, Henry married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York. Almost immediately she gave birth to a son, Arthur, and the Tudor dynasty was on its way to establishing its splendid reputation in history.

After Henry quelled a few rebellions and crushed the hopes of a few imposters to the throne, the reign became relatively quiet. But in 1501-2, Henry’s heir Prince Arthur and then his wife died. It was a time of crisis for Henry. All his hopes were placed in his second son, Prince Henry. This was when Henry became physically ill with the tuberculosis which would eventually be fatal. His paranoia became even more evident. He was cautious and secretive and began resorting to extra-judicial measures. He found men to carry out his rare and extraordinary methods for collecting money and keeping people under control.

Penn is masterful in setting the scene here. He tells us about the men Henry relied on. He talks about secret plots and behind the scenes diplomatic maneuvers. He gives us great insight into the personality of Henry and what his motives were. There are delicious descriptions of visits of ambassadors, Elizabeth of York’s funeral, the entry of Catherine of Aragon into London and her wedding to Arthur Tudor. Really the entire panoply of Henry’s reign is described in great detail.

For me, the best chapters are in the last third of the book. After the death of Arthur and Elizabeth, King Henry brings Prince Henry to court to give him every advantage and to make clear the hopes of the dynasty rested on his shoulders. The education of Prince Henry as well as a great awareness of how he spent his leisure time is recounted. Prince Henry was closely guarded by his father and not allowed much leeway in his behavior. But the descriptions of him and his pals and their military training and jousting antics are really fun to read about.

I found that reading S.B. Chrimes biography of Henry first laid the foundation for a better understanding of Penn’s book so I would recommend that course of action. But it’s not totally necessary. For me the book seemed to start off a little slow, however it certainly picks up after a few chapters and begins to read more like an enjoyable historical fiction book. Only it’s not fiction! Really I can’t recommend this book enough if you are interested in the Tudor era and this overlooked king.

Book Review: “Lancastrians, Yorkists and Henry VII” by S.B. Chrimes

Chrimes Lancastrian book cover

Upon the recommendation of a respected history friend, I purchased a used copy of this book. In my pursuit to learn more and understand the Wars of the Roses, it appeared this would be a valuable read. It is easy to get confused among all the descendants of King Edward III and the possible contenders for the English throne in the fifteenth century. I also had enjoyed Chrimes biography of King Henry VII.

My friend was right, this is an excellent book. In the forward, Chrimes tells us the origins of the term “Wars of the Roses” and how it didn’t come into being until the eighteenth century. He swears he will not use the term in the course of the book and he keeps his promise. The only thing I’m wondering is what, if anything, the people of the time period called the conflict. This question is not answered.

Chrimes begins with the children of King Edward III and traces the roots of the family feud to John of Gaunt’s son Henry of Bolingbroke’s usurpation of the throne from his cousin King Richard II. This was the beginning of the Lancastrian dynasty which lasted until the deposition and eventually the death of King Henry VI in 1471. The first section of the book describes the Lancastrian dynasty, how it came into being and how it ends. The second section of the book tells us about the rise of the Yorkists. He goes into great detail about the reign of King Edward IV and how he reestablished a strong working government after the lapses of the Lancastrian kings.

After the sudden death of King Edward, the House of York divided itself with Richard III usurping the throne from his nephew. Chrimes’ point of view is that Richard started out strongly but after the death of his heir, Prince Edward, followed by the death of his wife, Anne Neville, things began to unravel. It was too soon after Richard took over and some Yorkists defected to Henry Tudor. Henry was an unlikely heir assumptive to the throne, having only a weak at best claim and no experience in government or military matters. Richard should have won the Battle of Bosworth but there was no controlling the behavior of the Stanley’s or Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.

It was clear the powers that be were tired of the civil strife. Henry Tudor’s oath to marry Elizabeth of York promised peace. Chrimes is very complimentary of Henry Tudor’s grasp of governing and stresses how he kept in place the Yorkist administration, exploiting and expanding on it. The book includes many pictures from illuminated manuscripts of the central characters and my copy has a family tree of Edward III and a map of England with areas marked for Lancastrians and Yorkists. The entire panoply of characters are presented here in a concise retelling of the history. Chrimes is fair-minded and even-handed, not taking sides or judging and all of this is done with an amiable and kindly sense of humor. I was sorry the book ended and will likely use it for reference in the future.

Book Review: “Henry VII” by S.B. Chrimes

Henry VII Chrimes book cover

As historians, we are lucky to have a selection of biographies on English kings published by the Yale University Press called “The English Monarchs Series”. For over thirty years, the biographies, written by eminently qualified historians, have given us the latest research on these important figures in history. S.B. Chrimes, born in 1907, was head of the department of history at University College, Cardiff, the University of Wales, from 1953 to 1974. This biography of Henry Tudor was first published in Britain in 1972 by a British publisher. A paperback edition was issued in 1977 and Yale University Press published their edition in 1999 with a new forward by George Bernard, reader in Tudor history at the University of Southampton.

Bernard’s forward essentially updates the research done by Chrimes since the original publishing of the work in 1972. For the most part he states the work is still valid with a few revisions based on new research. The earliest works on Henry were from James Gairdner and Wilhelm Busch from the 1890’s so Henry was definitely due for a fresher look. Chrimes is quick to point out the biography of Henry VII’s life from Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) should be taken with a grain of salt and refutes several of Bacon’s arguments.

Part one of this book gives us an overview of Henry’s life up to the Battle of Bosworth in August of 1485. This is followed by a chapter on his accession, coronation, marriage and family. Next he covers the issue of security which Henry dealt with for the rest of his reign. Chrimes recounts the uprisings and pretenders who haunted Henry for many years. This section of the book is very interesting.

The rest of the book gives us many details on Henry’s reign based on meticulous research by Chrimes and others. Part two of the book is entitled “The Personnel and Machinery of Government” with sections on the King Council, Seals and Secretariats, Financial Administration, Parliaments and Great Councils and Judicature. While this section is very informative, some may find the material dry and uninteresting. If you are a Tudor historian, you will learn a lot about the workings of early Tudor government.

Part three is entitled “Statecraft”. This section deals with law-making, law enforcement, fiscal and financial policy, economic and social policy, relations with the church, Henry’s policies toward Wales and Ireland and his handling of foreign policies. Again, some of this information may appear dry but I found the chapters on Wales and Ireland and Henry’s foreign policy to be very appealing. It was especially interesting to read about how Henry made overtures to find a wife after his queen, Elizabeth of York died in 1503 and how this impacted his foreign policy. For most of his reign he lobbied for a diplomatic and trade alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor and sought to marry Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy and Regent of the Netherlands. Ultimately, Margaret refused to marry him.

Chrimes addresses the viewpoints that Henry was rapacious and miserly. He basically argues yes and no to both. One item of interest is he refutes Francis Bacon’s statement that when Henry died he left a fortune of two million pounds. He says this isn’t true and that most of what remained in the treasury was precious items and jewels, Henry’s favorite investments. There is a diverse selection of appendixes in the book and a myriad of great photos. There is a valuable bibliography and a nice selection of family trees as well. This book is an excellent and reliable overview of King Henry VII’s life and reign and I highly recommend it to lovers of Tudor history.

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

Anne Neville Licence book cover

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.