The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J. Coleman

After reading Melanie Clegg’s new biography of Margaret Tudor a few weeks ago, I thought the perfect book to follow it with would be another new release, The Afterlife of King James IV: Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King, which looks at the myths and legends surrounding the death of Margaret’s husband, the king of Scotland. As I only knew the basic facts about James IV, I had no idea there was so much controversy about his death at Flodden Field in 1513, but it seems that there were many rumours and conspiracy theories that began to circulate following the battle and Keith J. Coleman discusses some of these in this book.

As penance for his involvement in the death of his father James III, James IV famously wore an iron chain around his waist and it was the fact that the body removed from Flodden did not have the chain that gave rise to the conspiracy theories. Had James switched places with another man on the battlefield? Did he escape and go into hiding? If so, why did he never return? And where is his body’s true resting place? These are just some of the questions the book explores and attempts to answer.

To understand some of the stories surrounding the king’s death, we need to consider where they originated and who might benefit from them. It’s easy to see why the Scottish people, who must have been shocked and disheartened by the scale of their defeat at Flodden, may have found comfort in the idea that somewhere, somehow, their king had survived and might one day come back to lead them again. But Coleman also looks at the situation from an English perspective and from the point of view of ambassadors from elsewhere in Europe, who may or may not have been happy to think that James was still alive.

The selection of legends are certainly interesting and varied. Some are more plausible (though still unlikely), such as the possibility that James went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or that he avoided being killed in battle only to be murdered shortly afterwards by one of his enemies, while others take us into the realms of the supernatural and stories of other worlds. The book also covers some accounts of the ghostly apparitions and prophecies that supposedly foretold the outcome of the battle and there is an examination of how the myths and legends about James compare with those about some of his predecessors such as Alexander III and Macbeth. I was also intrigued by a discussion of the short story Wandering Willie’s Tale, which appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, as that is one of the few Scott novels I have read!

Despite the fascinating subject, however, I didn’t find this book quite as enjoyable as I’d expected. The way it is structured made it difficult for me to become fully absorbed in the writing – I thought it jumped around too much from one idea or thought to another rather than being set out chronologically or in any other order that would have made sense to me. It felt repetitive and there was also less time devoted to the actual legends and folklore than I’d anticipated. It’s probably not a book I would recommend to people who are completely new to Scottish history either; it’s written in quite a scholarly style and if you have at least a little bit of familiarity with names and events I’m sure you’ll find things easier to follow. My reading of Rosemary Goring’s two novels After Flodden and Dacre’s War helped me here, I think!

Although this book was not as entertaining as it sounded, I’m pleased I’ve read it and added to my knowledge of the life – and particularly the death – of James IV.

Margaret Tudor by Melanie Clegg

Henry VIII’s sister Margaret is one of the lesser known Tudors and doesn’t usually get a lot of attention either in fiction or non-fiction, yet she was important historically as both an English princess and a queen of Scotland. This very enjoyable new biography by Melanie Clegg takes us through the whole of Margaret’s life from her birth in 1489 to her death in 1541, throwing some light on her childhood, her time as queen and her unhappy second and third marriages.

As the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Margaret had the sort of privileged childhood you would expect – perhaps more so than usual because Henry, not yet secure on his recently claimed throne, wanted to do everything he could to increase the rank and status of the new Tudor dynasty. Margaret grew up well aware of her own importance and value to her father in his efforts to arrange marriages for his children and form alliances with other royal families. In 1503, at the age of thirteen, Margaret was married to the thirty-year-old James IV of Scotland and made the long journey north while still in mourning for her mother, who had died earlier that year. It must have been a daunting experience for such a young girl, but James, despite already having several mistresses and illegitimate children, treated her with respect and kindness and helped her to settle into life in her new country.

Margaret was still just in her twenties when James was killed fighting the English at the battle of Flodden in 1513, leaving her to rule as regent for their young son who was crowned James V. She did not remain a widow for long, however, and soon married again, this time to a husband of her own choice, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, a move which angered the rest of the Scottish nobility and resulted in her losing the regency. The remainder of Margaret’s life was marked by political turmoil and personal tragedy – including the death of her younger son, divorce from Angus and an equally unhappy and unsuccessful third marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Methven.

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography. It is written in a clear and easy to read style and although it may not be academic enough for some readers (sources are just listed at the back of the book, for example, rather than being directly referenced in the text) for the general reader this is a good introduction to Margaret Tudor’s life and to this period of Scottish and English history. Melanie Clegg’s portrayal of Margaret feels quite fair and balanced, so that the reader feels some sympathy for her while also being aware of her flaws. There are parallels with the life of her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots (James V’s daughter), who also made some poor decisions when it came to choosing husbands!

Clegg shows how, in Margaret’s first few years in Scotland she has little interest in politics and government, but as time goes by she begins to grow in knowledge and experience. She is often torn between her adopted country and the country of her birth and does everything she can to bring about peace between Scotland and England, not always successfully. It can’t have been easy being the sister of a man like Henry VIII, after all (though maybe slightly preferable to being his wife). She should have been able to rely on him for support, especially after James is killed at Flodden, but instead he tries to make his own plans for Margaret and her children, aimed at uniting the two countries under one crown. Of course, this is what would eventually happen anyway, if not quite in the way Henry had hoped, through the marriage between Margaret’s granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots and grandson, Lord Darnley (son of Margaret’s daughter, Margaret Douglas) which resulted in the birth of the future James VI of Scotland and I of England.

I particularly enjoyed the second half of the book, which deals with the rivalries between the various factions of Scottish noblemen, the conflict between Margaret and the Duke of Albany (the next nearest in line to the throne) and her escape to England. The earlier chapters, although less dramatic, are interesting too and I loved the way James IV was portrayed. Staying in this fascinating period of history, I am looking forward to reading another new non-fiction book I have waiting on my TBR, The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J Coleman.

Thanks to Pen and Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney

Despite my love of history I know very little about Ancient Egypt, so when I was given the opportunity via National Geographic and TLC Book Tours to read When Women Ruled the World, I was immediately interested. Written by Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptology at UCLA, the book explores the lives of six female rulers – Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret and Cleopatra – asking how each was able to come to power, what challenges they faced during their reign and what the modern world can learn from studying them.

Apart from Cleopatra, I had never read about any of the other five rulers before, so I was looking forward to adding to my knowledge, but I don’t feel that I’ve learned as much about these six women as I would have expected to from this book. I can appreciate that the author was doing her best to work with the limited amount of factual information we have available to us, but there’s still a lot of speculation, interpretation and uncertainty. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched and there are detailed notes at the back, as well as an impressive list of resources and further reading; I just don’t feel that I’ve come away from the book with any real idea of what these female pharaohs may have been like as people, what their style of ruling was like or what their main accomplishments were.

To be fair, the author does point out that one of the reasons why we know so little about these women’s achievements is because the male pharaohs who followed tried to remove all traces of their predecessor from the historical records. Thutmose III, who ruled after his aunt Hatshepsut, “smashed her statues to bits, chiseled away the reliefs of the Punt expedition, and reassigned kingly images to her husband or father.”

This is a book with a very strong feminist message, which is fascinating when related directly to the Egyptians, for example when Cooney discusses how Nefertiti may have had to assume a male name and identity in order to rule, or how Hatshepsut had herself depicted wearing masculine clothes and with the appearance of a man. However, the author spends too much time drawing parallels with modern politics, discussing the stereotypes directed at female leaders and the language used to describe women like Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. It seems that the purpose of the book is to show that women have qualities which make them better equipped to rule the world than men and that the stories of the six female pharaohs of Egypt are being used to illustrate that point, rather than because they are interesting historical figures in their own right whose stories deserve to be remembered.

On a more positive note, I thought this book was written at the right level to make it accessible to the general reader. It wasn’t necessary to have any prior knowledge of Ancient Egypt and I found it easy enough to follow and to understand. There’s a map at the beginning and a useful chronology showing each ruler’s place in history, as well as an interesting selection of photographs and illustrations. Although this book wasn’t quite what I’d expected, I’m pleased to have at least been made aware of women like Merneith, Neferusobek and Tawosret, whose names weren’t even familiar to me before. I would like to read more about them one day.

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: A Tudor Christmas and Henry VII

I didn’t have time last month to write about all of the books I read for Nonfiction November, so I’m combining the final two into one post today, which I think is quite appropriate as they are both Tudor related!

First, A Tudor Christmas. If you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping yet, this lovely little book by historian and novelist Alison Weir and her co-author Siobhan Clarke, a guide for Historic Royal Palaces, could be the perfect gift for any history lovers in your life (or for yourself, at any time of year, of course).

Divided into twelve sections to represent each of the twelve days of Christmas, the book takes us through the origins of many of our favourite Christmas traditions, as well as some that were popular in Tudor times but have disappeared over the years. The text is interspersed with recipes, poems, carols and illustrations, so if you don’t want to read it straight through from beginning to end, you could just pick it up and read a page or two whenever you have a few spare moments over the festive period. This is much shorter than the other non-fiction books I’ve read by Alison Weir and obviously doesn’t have the same level of depth, but even so she and Clarke manage to cover a large amount of material, touching on almost every aspect of Christmas you could think of.

I enjoyed reading about the various ways in which St Stephen’s Day/Boxing Day was celebrated in different parts of Europe, ranging from hunting the wren and taking beribboned horses to be blessed by the priest, to distributing alms to the poor. There’s a discussion of when the turkey was first introduced to England, a fascinating chapter about the typical games that would be played at home or at court, and some eye-opening accounts of how much money Henry VIII would spend on celebrating Christmas. There are also descriptions of earlier traditions such as the burning of the yule log and the origins of holly, ivy and mistletoe being used as decorations and, although I would have preferred a tighter focus on the Tudor period itself (which is what I’d expected from the title), I did find the whole book an interesting and worthwhile read.

From a Tudor Christmas to a Tudor king…Henry VII by Gladys Temperley is a biography of the first Tudor monarch who reigned from 1485 to 1509. Originally published in 1914 (and reissued more recently by Endeavour Compass), it does feel a bit dated and dry in places, but I still found it perfectly readable.

I started to read this book shortly after finishing The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson, a fictional account of Henry’s life before he became king, so I was particularly interested in the earlier sections which gave the facts behind some of the episodes which were featured in the novel such as Henry’s time in exile and preparations for his return to England at the head of an army. However, all of this is passed over very quickly, to be followed by a much longer section on the rebellions, conspiracies and pretenders to the throne – including Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel – that repeatedly threatened Henry’s reign. As Temperley says, “He trusted few men, suspected many. He had plunged too early into the bitter waters of adversity, and as a fugitive exile, eating the bread of dependence at the courts of France and Brittany, had learnt to watch and school himself until repression had killed all spontaneity.”

Henry VII isn’t one of my favourite kings, but Gladys Temperley seems to have a lot of respect and admiration for him, which I think is a good thing – as long as it doesn’t lead to too much bias, I always think it’s better when an author likes and is genuinely passionate about their subject. Temperley highlights many of Henry’s lasting achievements, such as his ‘Mercantile System’, a policy which aimed to increase foreign trade and improve England’s economy, and the steps he took towards reforming the country’s judicial system.

The book feels thoroughly researched; there are footnotes throughout the text, three appendices giving more information on The Star Chamber, Perkin Warbeck and Juana of Castile, and a very impressive bibliography. You do need to remember, though, that this is a very old biography and that what we know of history is constantly evolving. For a more modern look at Henry VII, I recommend Winter King by Thomas Penn.

Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I’ve been reading more of it than usual over the last few weeks in preparation for Nonfiction November. Murder by the Book, an account of a true crime which took place in Victorian London, sounded appealing to me because it promised to explore the possible links between the crime and some of the bestselling novels of the day.

The book begins by describing the events of 6th May 1840, when Lord William Russell’s housemaid found her master in bed with his throat slit. Suicide was suspected at first, but with his head almost severed from his body, this theory was dismissed and a murder investigation began. Russell, an elderly widower, had been leading a quiet, unremarkable life, living alone (apart from his servants) in a respectable Mayfair street. Who could possibly have wanted him dead – and why?

The murder sent shockwaves throughout London, with everyone – including Queen Victoria herself – following the news and voicing their opinions. What made this particular case so shocking was that when the culprit was identified and questioned, it was found that before committing the murder he had been reading Jack Sheppard, a well-known novel by William Harrison Ainsworth. Based on the story of a real life 18th century criminal, Jack Sheppard had been published as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany from January 1839 until February 1840. With plots involving murder, theft and violence, crime novels of this type had become known as ‘Newgate Novels’ (a reference to the Newgate Prison), and were hugely popular with the public, partly due to the rise in literacy levels during the first half of the 19th century. Following the Russell murder, a debate began regarding the suitability of this sort of reading material.

I enjoyed Murder by the Book, but I didn’t find the true crime element particularly interesting. There didn’t seem to be a lot of mystery surrounding Russell’s death and the murderer was arrested quite quickly. Although Claire Harman did manage to flesh the story out, on its own it wouldn’t have been enough to form a compelling book. The parts where she discussed Jack Sheppard and other popular novels of the time were of much more interest to me. I haven’t read Jack Sheppard, or anything else by William Harrison Ainsworth, and I’d had no idea that it had been so successful in its time. The book was adapted for stage many times, including some musical versions, so even if people hadn’t read it they were likely to have seen it performed.

The reactions of other authors were interesting; Charles Dickens had apparently been a friend of Ainsworth’s, but distanced himself from him after the Russell incident, doing all he could to defend the reputation of his own Oliver Twist, which covered similar themes. Both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray followed the outcome of the murder trial and attended the hanging of the culprit and some of their thoughts on this are given in the book.

Anyway, the social aspects of the book were fascinating, even if the true crime parts weren’t – although I was surprised that Claire Harman didn’t draw more parallels between the Jack Sheppard controversy and the perceived influence of modern television, music and video games on violent behaviour. The book reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy and I think if you enjoy one you might enjoy the other.

Thanks to Viking for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Golden Lads by Daphne du Maurier

When I was making my list for this year’s R.I.P. challenge last week, I remembered that one of the books I read for last year’s R.I.P. was Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. The title was from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust” – the same lines that inspired the title of Daphne du Maurier’s Golden Lads: A Study of Anthony Bacon, Francis and Their Friends, a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while. Having been reminded of it, I picked it up and started reading, knowing that I have to be in the right mood for non-fiction.

Golden Lads was published in 1975 and was followed a year later by a second volume, The Winding Stair: Francis Bacon, His Rise and Fall, which I may or may not read at some point. I love Daphne du Maurier and since discovering Rebecca as a teenager, I have read almost all of her novels and most of her short story collections, but only one of her non-fiction books, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë. I remember finding the Brontë biography almost as readable as her fiction, so I hoped this book would be the same. And it is certainly very readable – it only took a few days to read and was quite a page-turner at times, probably because, as stated in the introduction, du Maurier was writing this book with ‘her sort of reader’ in mind.

Anthony Bacon (born in 1558) and his younger brother Francis (born in 1561) were the sons of Sir Nicholas Bacon, who was Elizabeth I’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and one of the most powerful men in England. Their mother, Anne Cooke, was the sister-in-law of the Lord High Treasurer William Cecil, Elizabeth’s most trusted adviser. With such impressive family connections, the Bacon brothers were well placed to develop glittering careers of their own, but for Anthony that never quite happened, and for Francis not as quickly as he’d hoped.

After attending Cambridge University together at the ages of fifteen and twelve, their lives went in different directions with Francis entering Gray’s Inn as a lawyer while Anthony spent several years in Europe building up a network of contacts to send intelligence back to Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. During this period he became a friend of Henri of Navarre (later Henri IV of France) and the French essayist Montaigne. I was intrigued to find that another of his friends was Antonio Perez, whom I met just a few weeks ago in That Lady by Kate O’Brien! On his return to England in 1592, however, Anthony seems to have kept a low profile, which du Maurier explains as being as a result of his increasingly poor health (he suffered from gout and possibly other illnesses as well) but also due to a scandal which took place during his time in Montauban and for which du Maurier found new evidence in the form of archival records.

Francis is the best known of the Bacon brothers today, but most of the accomplishments in science, politics, philosophy and literature for which he is remembered are not discussed in Golden Lads as this book concentrates more on Anthony and only covers the period up to 1601. I didn’t mind this as I knew nothing at all about Anthony and was glad to have the opportunity to learn something new, but I didn’t feel that I got to know Francis very well at all. For that, I will obviously need to read The Winding Stair – although I’m not sure if or when I will get round to reading that book.

I found a lot to like about Golden Lads. As I’ve said, du Maurier’s writing style makes it easy to read and it’s obvious that she is enthusiastic about her subject. She includes extracts from letters and occasional bits of dialogue written in play format, which adds some variety, but readers who are hoping for an academic, scholarly biography might be disappointed as not everything is fully referenced (although she does include a bibliography and list of sources at the back of the book). I thought the first half of the book, which covers the Bacons’ early lives, was very enjoyable, but in the second half the focus switches to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and his military exploits in Cadiz and Ireland and this is where I started to get bored. I have read about Essex before and although I understand the important role he played in the lives of Anthony and Francis Bacon, I didn’t really want to read about him again in so much detail.

Golden Lads will not be a book for everyone, but I can definitely recommend it to readers who are particularly interested in Elizabethan England. I enjoyed it overall, but I’m not sure if I enjoyed it enough to want to continue with The Winding Stair. Has anyone read it – or any of du Maurier’s other non-fiction?

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W Tuchman

I tend not to read non-fiction very often, but Barbara W Tuchman’s 1978 history of the 14th century, A Distant Mirror, is one I’ve been intending to read for years. It looked like such a long book, and I’d heard that it was also a very detailed one, so I knew I would need to pick the right time to read it – and that time came at the beginning of April this year. It took me all of that month to read it, but I actually found it a much easier read than I’d expected, due partly to the style of Tuchman’s writing and partly, of course, to the 14th century being so fascinating!

I couldn’t possibly list everything that this book covers, but here are some of the topics it explores: the Hundred Years’ War, the conflict between England and France usually dated as beginning in 1337 and ending in 1453 and including the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers; the Black Death which ravaged Europe and then reared its head again and again throughout the rest of the century; the Papal Schism which resulted in a split within the Catholic Church; and the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the similar uprising, the Jacquerie, which occurred in France. A lot of destruction, disaster and devastation, but the book is subtitled The Calamitous 14th Century, after all, and – as Tuchman points out – it tends to be the negative rather than the positive which survives in historical records. It is not really necessary to have any prior knowledge of any of these things before you begin, as Tuchman does take the reader through everything you need to know and more.

In an attempt to pull all of these different threads together, Tuchman uses the life of a French nobleman, Enguerrand de Coucy, as a central point of focus. There are a few reasons for her choice of this particular historical figure: not only did he live through most of the major events of the 14th century (being born in 1340 and dying in 1397), but his noble status means that he appears in historical records and sources, and as the husband of Isabella, daughter of Edward III of England, he had close connections with both the English and the French. When I first started reading, I really liked the idea of seeing the century from one man’s perspective, but actually this aspect of the book wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. There are whole chapters where Enguerrand is barely mentioned, and others where I felt that too much attention was given to him and his actions when other people or incidents might have been more interesting.

Of course, as well as Enguerrand de Coucy, we do hear about lots of other historical figures of the period – such as Charles the Bad of Navarre, whose horrific-sounding death sticks in the mind! I enjoyed reading about some of the notable women of the time, including the poet Christine de Pisan; Marcia Ordelaffi, left to defend the city of Cesena in her husband’s absence; and in particular, Jeanne de Montfort (Joanna of Flanders), who also proved herself more than capable in moments of crisis:

When Charles de Blois besieged Hennebont, she led a heroic defence in full armour astride a war-horse in the streets, exhorting the soldiers under a hail of arrows and ordering women to cut short their skirts and carry stones and pots of boiling pitch to the walls to cast down upon the enemy. During a lull she led a party of knights out a secret gate and galloped a roundabout way to take the enemy camp in the rear, destroyed half their force and defeated the siege.

War is, understandably, a major theme of the book, as is religion, but Tuchman also covers almost every other aspect of 14th century life you can think of, from food, clothing and housing to music, literature and entertainment. She often goes off on a tangent, for example starting with a description of a visit by the Holy Roman Emperor to the French court then digressing to talking about miracle plays and how they were performed. There are interesting discussions of medieval artwork and why there were so few pictures of children, of the decline of chivalry and the changing role of the knight, and all sorts of odd snippets of information – did you know that during one of France’s failed attempts to invade England they tried to transport an entire portable wooden town across the sea to house the invaders in when they landed?

The book’s title, A Distant Mirror, suggests the mirroring of 14th century events by more recent ones, and Tuchman does draw some parallels with her own century, the 20th, particularly with reference to the two World Wars:

For belligerent purposes, the 14th century, like the 20th, commanded a technology more sophisticated than the mental and moral capacity that guided its use.

She also compares World War I and its effect on society with the devastation caused throughout medieval Europe by the plague:

An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914-18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust.

However, I’m sure links and similarities could be found between any two periods in history if you looked for them, so I would have liked more specific examples and analysis of why the author considered the 14th century in particular to be ‘a distant mirror’.

I know this sort of long, detailed, in-depth account is not for everyone, especially if you’re not as interested in medieval history as I am, but I enjoyed it and felt that I got a lot out of it. If anyone else has read this book, I would love to know what you thought.