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.

Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

“All Spain seems to seek me, señor,” answered the stranger merrily. “But who shall slay Nick Beauvallet? Will you try?”

Having read and loved many of Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian romances, I’ve been interested in trying one of her historical novels set in earlier periods – and at the same time, I’ve been a bit wary because they don’t seem as popular or well-liked as the Regencies. I needn’t have worried, though, because I made a good choice with her 1929 novel Beauvallet, set in sixteenth century Spain and England; I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to all Heyer readers, but it was definitely my sort of book!

Sir Nicholas Beauvallet is a notorious English pirate whose name is spoken of in the same breath as Sir Francis Drake’s and at the beginning of the novel his ship, the Venture, is engaged in conflict with the Spanish galleon Santa Maria. The Spanish vessel is captured and the people aboard taken captive, among them the beautiful Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva and her father, Don Manuel. After a futile attempt to fight off Beauvallet with his own dagger, Dominica knows the situation is hopeless – and so she is very surprised when Beauvallet offers to take them safely home to Spain, swearing to return at a later date to make her his wife. This seems like a ridiculous plan – no Englishman in his right mind would attempt to enter Spain while the two countries are at war – but our hero is not known as ‘Mad Nicholas’ for nothing…

The plot is over the top and not to be taken too seriously, but the book is great fun to read – the perfect way to escape from the pressures of modern day life for a while and retreat into a good old-fashioned adventure story complete with swordfights, sea battles, abductions, imprisonments and daring escapes! Heyer’s attention to period detail is as evident in this novel as in her others, and being set in an earlier century means she has adjusted the language and the dialogue accordingly. While I thought Dominica was quite thinly drawn and not as memorable as many of Heyer’s other heroines, Nick Beauvallet is a wonderful character. He reminded me very much of some of Rafael Sabatini’s irrepressible swashbuckling heroes, particularly Peter Blood – and of course, Captain Blood, another pirate novel, was published just a few years before Beauvallet. As a Sabatini fan, it was probably inevitable that I would enjoy this book!

As a romance, the book is quite predictable; right from their first encounter, where Dominica shouts “I hate you! I despise you, and I hate you!”, it’s easy to guess that her hatred will not last long, especially as Nick is not the sort of man to accept defeat, in love or in anything else. But sometimes predictability is not a bad thing, and there were plenty of other twists and turns along the way to make this an exciting and entertaining read. I would like to read the earlier Simon the Coldheart, about one of Beauvallet’s ancestors, but first I will be heading back to the Regency period as the next Heyer novel I have lined up to read is Sprig Muslin.

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Years before I started this blog – sometime in the 1990s, anyway – I read The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett’s epic novel about the building of a cathedral in the English market town of Kingsbridge during the 12th century. I found it much more exciting than it had initially sounded and I was soon gripped by the evil machinations of William Hamleigh, Prior Philip’s battle against the ruthless Bishop Waleran, and the seemingly doomed romance between Jack and Aliena. I’m sure I would be much more critical of it if I re-read it today and more likely to be bothered by the historical inaccuracies, but I loved it at the time. I wasn’t expecting a sequel, but one was published in 2007 – World Without End, set in the same fictional town (or city, as it has now become) more than a century later. I enjoyed that one too, although in some ways it felt to me like the same story being told again.

A Column of Fire, published in 2017, takes us back to Kingsbridge again for a third story, set this time in the 16th century. As the novel opens in 1558, Ned Willard is returning home to Kingsbridge from Calais, where he has spent a year working in the family business. Ned can’t wait to be reunited with his mother, Alice, who runs the Kingsbridge branch of the business, but there’s also someone else he is looking forward to seeing again – Margery Fitzgerald, the young woman he hopes to marry. Unfortunately for Ned, things have changed during his absence and Margery is now betrothed to Bart, the heir of the Earl of Shiring (and those of you who have read the other Kingsbridge novels will remember exactly what those Earls of Shiring are like). Margery would prefer to marry Ned, but her parents won’t allow it – the Fitzgeralds, like the Earl and his family, are Catholic, but the Willards are suspected of having Protestant sympathies.

While Mary Tudor still sits on the throne of England, families like the Fitzgeralds and the Shirings may have the upper hand, but Ned knows that one day things will change. Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth, promising greater religious tolerance, is waiting for her turn to wear the crown and, when she does, she will need men like Ned to be her trusted servants and spies.

Across the sea, meanwhile, France is also experiencing a period of religious conflict and turmoil as the ambitious and staunchly Catholic Guise brothers, whose young niece Mary, Queen of Scots has married the heir to the throne, engage in a power struggle with Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France. In Paris, we meet one of the villains of the novel, Pierre Aumande, a man who believes he has Guise blood and will do anything to inveigle his way into that family – including hunting down French Protestants and sending them to their deaths.

So far, I have only touched on a few of the characters and storylines this novel contains. There are many, many more. We follow the adventures of Ned’s brother Barney in Spain and then the New World. We meet Sylvie Palot, a French Huguenot who works in a Parisian bookshop, buying and selling forbidden literature. We see the story of Mary, Queen of Scots play out as she returns to Scotland and eventually becomes a prisoner on the orders of Elizabeth I. And we witness the Siege of Calais, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot. The novel has a huge scope, and that, I think, was a problem. There’s too much happening – far too much for one book – and that made it difficult for me to become truly absorbed in the lives and struggles of any of the characters. There’s no depth, no passion, no emotion; I didn’t really care about Ned and Margery’s romance, and I didn’t hate Pierre and the other villains as much as we were probably supposed to either.

That doesn’t mean I found nothing to like about this book. It’s certainly a fascinating period of history to read about and I can understand why Follett didn’t want to leave anything out, even though I would have preferred a tighter focus on just a few of the historical figures and incidents, rather than everything and everyone! The main theme of religious change and conflict was handled well. I really enjoyed the first half of the book but my interest started to wane as characters were abandoned for long stretches while others were introduced and as we spent more time in France, Spain, Scotland and the Caribbean, almost losing sight of Kingsbridge entirely.

I’m not really sure why this book involved Kingsbridge at all; I’m assuming it was probably done for marketing purposes, to pull in readers who enjoyed the previous two novels, but I think if it had been written as a standalone with no connection to the other two I would have had different expectations and might have judged it less harshly. One of the things I liked about The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End was that they were set in and around Kingsbridge Cathedral itself. We get to know the people who live and work in the city and there’s a strong sense of community as they come together to confront their enemies and face the threats of the outside world, but A Column of Fire is a different sort of story with a different feel. If anyone else has read this book I would be interested to know what you thought of it and how you felt it compared to the first two books.

Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin

I loved Young Bess, the first book in Margaret Irwin’s Elizabeth I trilogy, so I didn’t want to wait too long before picking up the second. I was hoping for another great read but, although there was still a lot to like about this book, I didn’t think it was as good as the first one.

Published in 1948, Elizabeth, Captive Princess, continues the story of the young Elizabeth. The novel begins with the death of Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward VI, leaving the succession to the throne of England in doubt. We then follow the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey, queen for nine days before eventually being beheaded after Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary comes to the throne. This is a fate that Elizabeth could face herself as she also becomes linked with plots and conspiracies during Mary’s reign, leading to her imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Before the novel ends, two very different men have entered Elizabeth’s life: one is Robert Dudley, son of the Duke of Northumberland and another prisoner in the Tower; the other is Philip of Spain, who has come to England at last to marry Queen Mary. I would expect Elizabeth’s relationships with these two men to form the basis of the final book in the trilogy, Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, but this particular book concentrates on the stories of Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. We actually see very little of Elizabeth herself in this book, which I thought was strange as she is the title character, although I suppose it’s not too surprising as a lot of the drama during this specific period was taking place elsewhere.

The lack of focus on Elizabeth wasn’t really a problem for me in itself; after all, in Young Bess it had been the secondary characters that I found most interesting anyway, particularly Thomas Seymour and his brothers Edward and Henry. But the characters in this book just don’t come to life in the way that the Seymours did and I struggled to connect with any of them on an emotional level. This made the novel feel a bit slow and flat, which was disappointing for me after enjoying the first one so much.

I don’t want to sound too negative, though, because I did like this book and the quality of Margaret Irwin’s writing still makes it a worthwhile read. I love her descriptive writing and the way she recreates Tudor London:

It was seven o’clock as they entered the city of London. The sun was setting in a fury of flame and storm-clouds. All the dark rickety wooden houses leaning top-heavily across the streets as though they were nodding to each other, all but rubbing each other’s foreheads, all seemed to have put on scarves and petticoats, so many bright cloths fluttered from the windows, while the gaily painted shop signs flaunted and creaked and clattered in the breeze.

Away from the main storylines, I enjoyed all the other little details of 16th century life and 16th century history. For example, I was interested in the account of the Edward Bonaventure’s voyages to the White Sea and the ‘strange land of endless snow’ which I first read about in The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett.

Having come this far, I will be finishing the trilogy with Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain, but will then look forward to reading some of Margaret Irwin’s other books. I have The Galliard, her novel about Mary, Queen of Scots and the Earl of Bothwell on my TBR and would also like to read The Stranger Prince, about Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Rákossy by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland’s many historical novels cover a wide range of time periods and settings. So far I have only read two of them: City of God, a story of Rome and the Borgias, and Hammer for Princes, set in 12th century England in the period known as the Anarchy. My third Holland novel, Rákossy, takes place in Hungary during the Ottoman Wars of the 1520s. Not having read many books set in Hungary, I was looking forward to something different and to learning something new.

The title character is János Rákossy, a Magyar border lord trying to protect his lands from the threat of Turkish invasion. He is disappointed with the lack of help from the rest of Europe whom he feels are leaving Hungary to fend for itself and he knows he can’t rely on the support of his neighbouring barons either. All he can do is continue to negotiate treaties, train his knights, carry out raids, try to build alliances, and do whatever else is necessary to defend his castle and his people.

Rákossy is not the sort of man who is easy to like. He is ruthless, cold, cynical and violent towards both men and women. As another character says of him:

“The people in the village think that he sold his soul to the Devil for a charmed life and fortune in battle. The Turks, I’m told, believe so too. I think it’s possibly the only point of agreement between them.”

He does have some good qualities – he’s clever and shrewd and his courage is not in question – but he is certainly not someone I could consider to be a hero. This seems to be normal for a Cecelia Holland protagonist, though; I had similar feelings about Nicholas in City of God and Fulk in Hammer for Princes. She seems to excel at deliberately creating characters who are unappealing, morally ambiguous and whose motives are not always clear. But at least if her central characters are not very likeable, they are still interesting and complex.

Of the other characters in the novel, two stand out. One is Denis, Rákossy’s brother, a sensitive man who prefers books to warfare and doesn’t always approve of or agree with Rákossy’s actions. The other is Catharine de Buñez, believed to be an illegitimate daughter of the King of Aragon, who marries Rákossy early in the novel. As far as I can tell, most of the major characters in the book are fictional, although the story is based on fact, giving us an idea of the situation on the Hungary-Turkey border leading up to the Battle of Mohács in 1526. If you know what the outcome of that battle is going to be, it does affect how you might view Rákossy’s negotiations and military preparations throughout the novel, but either way you can admire what he is trying to do for his country.

I didn’t find this book particularly enjoyable, mainly because I thought it was very bleak and also because it didn’t seem to have any sort of plot beyond a string of raids and battles. It was one of Cecelia Holland’s earliest novels, though – published in 1967 – and based on the others I’ve read I think they do get better. I don’t think she’ll ever become a favourite author as her writing lacks the warmth and emotion I prefer, but I’m still looking forward to reading more of her books because her subjects and settings all sound so intriguing. I have a NetGalley copy of The Soul Thief, which is about to be reissued by Canelo, so I will be reading that one next.

By Sword and Storm by Margaret Skea

This is the third novel in Margaret Skea’s Munro Scottish Saga set in 16th century Scotland and France and based on the history of a clan feud known as the Ayrshire Vendetta. I haven’t read the first two, Turn of the Tide and A House Divided, but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of this third book.

The novel opens in 1598 with Adam Munro, a colonel in the Scots Gardes, living in France with his wife Kate, who has skills as a healer, and their three children, Robbie, Maggie and Ellie. One of the functions of Adam’s regiment is to provide protection to Henri IV of France and when Adam saves the king’s life while risking his own in the process, the Munro family are rewarded with an invitation to come and live at the French court.

In Scotland, meanwhile, the feud between the Cunninghames and Montgomeries is supposedly at an end and the Scottish king, James VI, has banned unauthorised duelling. Most of the family members are trying to keep the peace, but two of them – Hugh Montgomerie and William Cunninghame – are still not prepared to let things rest. The Scottish storyline and the French one alternate throughout the book, eventually coming together as the novel heads towards its conclusion.

By Sword and Storm is a mixture of fact and fiction; many of the characters are real historical figures while others come from the author’s imagination – if you want to know who really existed and who didn’t, there’s a character list at the beginning of the book. Apart from the storylines involving the fictional characters, the novel is grounded in historical fact and has obviously been well researched. I loved the portrayal of life at the court of France, where Kate gets to know the king’s mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, and I sympathised with Maggie, who longs to study medicine and despite being given opportunities in France that would not have been open to her in Scotland, still faces obstacles because of her sex.

The political and religious situation in France at that time also plays a part in the story. At the beginning of the novel we see Henri IV issuing the Edict of Nantes, bringing the French Wars of Religion to an end and giving the Huguenots more freedom. However, it is still not safe for people in Paris to worship as they wish, as Kate and Adam’s son, Robbie, discovers when he becomes romantically involved with a Huguenot girl. I think Margaret Skea does a good job of showing the many dangers of 16th century life, not only where religion was concerned, but also for pregnant women before and during childbirth, patients with the sort of illness or injury that could be easily treated today, and anyone who had to travel by ship. It’s a period I love to read about but would not have liked to have lived through!

I really enjoyed By Sword and Storm. I liked the characters and even though I hadn’t been with them from the beginning, I found it easy enough to jump into their story and follow what was happening. Although this was meant to be the third in a trilogy, at the end of the novel I felt that there was still scope for more, so I was pleased to find that Margaret Skea has said she may return to this story again in the future.

Thanks to the publisher Corazon Books for providing a copy of this book for review.

Classics Spin Review: That Lady by Kate O’Brien

Kate O’Brien’s novel from 1946, That Lady, was the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. I had never read anything by Kate O’Brien before and had only added this one to my Classics Club list because I remembered reading some very positive reviews by Lisa and Kay and because I liked the portrait on the front cover of the Virago Modern Classics edition. The portrait shows Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli and Duchess of Pastrana, and Ana’s life is the subject of the novel.

That Lady opens in 1576, with Ana a widow of thirty-six. Following the death of her husband Ruy Gomez de Silva, one of King Philip II of Spain’s closest advisers, Ana and her children have continued to live on Ruy’s lands in Pastrana in the region of Castile. If you know nothing about Ana, as I didn’t before reading this book, you’ll be pleased to know that O’Brien gives plenty of detail on Ana’s background, explaining how she came to be married to Ruy Gomez at the age of thirteen, how she lost her eye fighting a duel with a page in her father’s household, and the origins of her close relationship with Philip II.

Early in the novel, Philip visits Ana at the Palace of Pastrana and asks her to consider coming back to Madrid. He gives several reasons why she should return, but it is clear that he misses Ana and her children and wants them living nearer to him. Ana is reluctant, but within a year she is back in Madrid and here she begins an affair with Antonio Perez, Philip’s ambitious secretary of state. Needless to say, this was not what the king had intended, and when Ana’s affair becomes public – and, worse still, leads to her becoming implicated in a murder case – she finds that Philip is not such a good friend after all.

That Lady is an unusual novel and at first I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it. The pace is slow and although there is a lot happening, most of it happens off the page; major events including the defeat of the Spanish Armada are covered in a few brief sentences, while dramas which directly affect Ana, such as the murder mentioned above and the circumstances which lead to it, are only referred to in conversation afterwards. The lack of action makes this much more of a character driven novel, which I’m usually quite happy with, but I also struggled to understand and warm to Ana as a character during the first half of the novel.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, though, I began to find Ana’s story much more compelling. I understood why her relationship with Antonio was so important to her, despite the disapproval of Philip and the public – because it was her own choice, something she was doing because she wanted to, and not because she had been pushed into it by her father, by her husband or by the king. I admired her for sticking to her principles and I was impressed by the loyalty she inspired in her young daughter, Anichu, and her servant, Bernardina. Ana also finds herself struggling to reconcile her actions with her religious beliefs and this is another of the novel’s themes, which develops through conversations with her friend, Cardinal Quiroga of Toledo.

I found it intriguing that in her foreword to That Lady, O’Brien states that this is not a historical novel, but an ‘invention’ based on the story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II, in which the outline of historical events is real but the words, thoughts and emotions of the characters are imaginary. I think I know what she was trying to say, but surely any historical novel contains an element of invention, otherwise it wouldn’t be a novel. Anyway, I was able to learn a huge amount from this book, not just about Ana, Philip and Antonio, but also about the political situation in Spain in the late sixteenth century. Most of this was new to me and the amount of detail made it quite a slow read, but an interesting one too.

I was left wanting to know more about the real woman, so I looked her up online and found a selection of portraits of Ana, with her distinctive silk eye patch (although it seems there could be a less dramatic explanation for the loss of her eye than the duelling story). I couldn’t find any other novels about Ana, but if you know of any, please let me know. And if you’ve read this book, I would love to hear what you thought of it – and whether you would recommend anything else by Kate O’Brien.

This is book 8/50 from my second Classics Club list.