Six Tudor Queens: Katharine Parr, the Sixth Wife by Alison Weir

This is the final book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series retelling, in fictional form, the stories of the wives of Henry VIII. Katharine Parr, the subject of this sixth novel, has never interested me as much as some of the other wives, yet this book has turned out to be my favourite of the series, not just for what we learn about Katharine herself, but also for the depiction of the political and religious situation in England during the later stages of Henry’s reign.

I have read other novels about Katharine Parr, such as Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit and Philippa Gregory’s The Taming of the Queen (interestingly, every author seems to choose a different spelling of her name!), but none of them go into as much depth and concentrate almost solely on her time as Henry’s wife and her relationship with Thomas Seymour. This book starts at the beginning, with Katharine’s childhood, and then takes us through her entire life, devoting plenty of time to her earlier two marriages, first to the young Edward Burgh and then to John Neville, Lord Latimer. I particularly enjoyed the section of the book where Katharine is married to Latimer; although it’s not a passionate romance, Katharine comes to love and trust her husband and they have a happy nine years together despite the religious turmoil going on around them (the uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace takes place during this period and provides one of the most exciting episodes in the novel).

Although Lord Latimer remains faithful to the Catholic Church, Katharine becomes a supporter of religious reform. When Latimer dies in 1543 and the King, having recently had his fifth wife beheaded, asks her to marry him, Katharine reluctantly accepts, knowing that turning down his proposal would be very unwise and hoping that her influence at court can further the cause of the reformers. Over time she becomes quite fond of Henry, engaging in lively debates with him on the subject of religion, but there is always an undercurrent of danger and Katharine knows that if she is to avoid the fate of her predecessors, she can’t allow her sympathies for the new Protestant religion to become too obvious. Somehow, Katharine manages to survive and outlive the King, free at last to marry Thomas Seymour, the man she really loves…but their time together is tragically short and marred by Seymour’s inappropriate behaviour with the young Princess Elizabeth.

I loved reading about Katharine’s life before she became Queen, as so much of this was new to me – and unlike the book on Anne of Cleves, where Weir admits that she invented a lot of Anne’s story, this one seems to be more grounded in historical fact. Once the novel moves on to her marriages to Henry VIII and Thomas Seymour, I was on more familiar ground and found these sections slightly less interesting to read – particularly as I have never liked Thomas Seymour and wished I could reach into the pages of the book and stop Katharine from marrying him!

Something that has intrigued me throughout this series is the way in which Alison Weir has chosen to portray Henry VIII. She shows him in a much more positive light than usual, to the point where she almost seems to be absolving him of any responsibility for his actions, putting the blame on the people around him instead – Thomas Cromwell, Bishop Gardiner, even some of his victims such as poor Katheryn Howard. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see a more nuanced depiction of Henry, but on the other I’m not convinced that his wives would all have viewed him as favourably as these books suggest!

Katharine Parr herself is portrayed as an intelligent, well-educated and compassionate woman; her previous marriages and experience of life have given her a maturity and common sense that some of Henry’s other wives lacked. She makes an effort to befriend her stepchildren and plays an important part in persuading Henry to restore his daughters Elizabeth and Mary to the line of succession. She gains the King’s trust and is named regent while he is away on a military campaign, as well as becoming the first queen to have books published in English under her own name. Katharine’s life is maybe not as dramatic as some of the other wives’, but because I liked her so much I was able to become fully invested in her story.

Now that this series has come to an end, Alison Weir is moving further back in time with her next novel to tell the story of Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, in The Last White Rose.

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

Book 41/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

I loved Andrew Greig’s last book, Fair Helen, a beautifully written historical novel based on a Scottish Border Ballad, so when I saw that his new one, Rose Nicolson, was going to be set in the same time and place I couldn’t wait to read it. Now that I’ve had the opportunity, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it just as much as Fair Helen and can highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Scotland in the 16th century.

Rose Nicolson is a fictional account of the life of a real historical figure, William Fowler, a Scottish makar, or poet, and is presented as his memoir written as an older man looking back on his youth. His story begins in Embra (Edinburgh) in 1574: Mary, Queen of Scots has fled to England leaving her young son, James VI, on the throne, but the real power is held by the Earl of Morton, the latest of four regents to govern Scotland during the young king’s minority. The Protestant religion now dominates but there are still those who have not given up hope of restoring Mary to the throne and returning Scotland to the Catholic church. It is during this time of political and religious uncertainty that William Fowler, the only son of an Edinburgh merchant family, sets out for St Andrews where he will become a student at the university.

William’s time in St Andrews is vividly described: the education he receives; the enlightening conversations and debates on topics such as philosophy, religion, politics and literature; his first tentative attempts at writing poetry; and the friendships he forms with the other students as they bond over drinks at the howff (pub) or during a game of gowf (golf). As you can see, Andrew Greig sprinkles Scots dialect throughout his prose, as well as using language appropriate to the time period – apart from one or two words and phrases here and there that I thought seemed out of place – and the overall effect is a narrative style that feels authentic and convincing. There’s a glossary at the end of the book for anyone who needs it, but I found it easy enough to read without it.

You may be wondering where Rose Nicolson comes into the story. Well, she’s the sister of a friend William makes at university, Tom Nicolson. Rose and Tom are from a Fife fishing family, but while Tom has been given the opportunity to study and to pursue an academic life, that is not possible for Rose. William is captivated by her intelligence, courage and quick mind, but a marriage is already planned for Rose with a local fisherman, so despite William’s love for her it seems that she will never be his wife.

As well as the romantic thread of the novel and the academic one, we also learn a lot about the period of history during which the story is set. The reign of Mary, Queen of Scots is well covered in historical fiction, but the early years of James VI’s reign are written about less often, which is a shame as it’s a complex, interesting and very eventful period. Many of the characters William meets in the novel are people who really existed; these include George Buchanan, the Scottish historian and humanist scholar, who recruits William as a spy; Esmé Stewart, the first of the young king’s many favourites; and most notably, Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the clever and charismatic border reiver who becomes a good friend of William’s and really deserves a whole book to himself! As for our hero William Fowler, I knew nothing at all about him until I read this book; I resisted the temptation to look him up online until I had finished, but it seems that he led a fascinating life. Rose Nicolson only covers the early part of his career, but it looks as though there’s enough material for several more books!

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

Book 37/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller

Mary Sidney may not be as well known as her brother Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet who wrote Astrophel and Stella, but she was a successful and accomplished author in her own right – and one of the first Englishwomen to publish under her own name. In Imperfect Alchemist, Naomi Miller brings Mary’s story to life in fictional form, beginning in 1575 when Mary is summoned to court to attend the Queen. Marriage follows a few years later to Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and although it is an arranged marriage rather than one based on love, Henry at least seems to accept his new wife’s intelligence and learning and allows her the freedom to pursue her literary interests, leading to her eventually establishing a literary circle at their home, Wilton House.

Mary’s story, which is written in the third person, alternates with a first person narrative from the perspective of another young woman, Rose Commin. Rose, a fictional character, comes from a very different background, having grown up in the countryside, the daughter of a cloth merchant and a herbalist. After her mother is put on trial for witchcraft, Rose is sent away to the safety of Wilton House, where she becomes maid to Lady Catherine Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who encourages her to develop her talent for drawing, as well as teaching her to read and write. Sadly, Lady Catherine dies shortly after Rose’s arrival, but when Henry Herbert marries again and brings his young wife, Mary Sidney, to Wilton House, a friendship begins to form between Rose and her new mistress.

Before reading Imperfect Alchemist, I knew almost nothing about Mary Sidney. Her brother Philip has appeared in one or two books I’ve read (such as Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge and Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle) but I can’t remember ever reading anything about Mary. As well as shedding some light on her personal life, the novel explores her involvement with alchemy and medicine, her relationships with other historical figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson and Aemilia Lanyer, and her major literary achievements. Not only does Mary prepare and publish an edition of her brother’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, she produces new translations of the Psalms and her version of the Antony and Cleopatra story is thought to inspire Shakespeare’s famous play.

Although Mary is, on the surface, the more interesting character, I think I preferred Rose’s sections of the book – possibly because Rose narrates her chapters herself, making her easier to identify with and to warm to. However, I’ve read a few other historical novels recently that have alternated a real woman’s story with an invented one (usually a lady’s maid), and along with the ‘healer being accused of witchcraft’ theme, which also seems to be an increasingly common trend in historical fiction, I didn’t feel that this book had anything very new or different to offer. As an introduction to the life and work of Mary Sidney Herbert, though, it’s excellent and I was certainly able to learn a lot from it. This is Naomi Miller’s first novel and apparently the first in a projected series of novels about early women authors, so I’ll be interested to see who she writes about next.

Book 17/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence

This is the fifth book in a series of historical mysteries set in the Tudor period and featuring the character of alchemist’s daughter Bianca Goddard. I don’t think it’s essential to read all of the books in the series in order; I started with the fourth one, The Alchemist of Lost Souls, and had no problems in picking up the threads of the story and following the plot.

As The Lost Boys of London opens, Bianca’s husband John is away fighting in Scotland for Henry VIII, leaving Bianca in London, devoting her time to preparing herbal remedies in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’. In the past, Bianca’s skills as a herbalist have led to her assisting Constable Patch with his investigations, and having played a part in solving several previous mysteries, her help is required again when a young boy is found hanging from the exterior wall of a church.

Finding a rosary wrapped around the boy’s neck marked with a set of initials, it seems there could be a religious motive for the murder, and this appears to be confirmed when a second boy is found under similar circumstances at another church. Bianca is determined to do whatever she can to find the murderer before he or she kills again – and she has a personal reason for wanting to do so as quickly as possible. Her own young friend, Fisk, who is about the same age as the other boys, has gone missing and Bianca is afraid that he could become the next victim.

I enjoyed this book more than The Alchemist of Lost Souls. I thought the mystery was stronger and more interesting, with its exploration of topics such as religious conflict, the rivalries between the clergy of various churches, and child poverty in Tudor London. Also, although the previous book included some magical realism elements, which didn’t entirely work for me, there didn’t seem to be anything like that in this one and I thought that was a good decision as the plot was strong enough without it. As well as following Bianca’s investigations in London, there are some chapters describing John’s adventures as a reluctant soldier in the Scottish borders during the war known as the ‘Rough Wooing’ and this added some variety to the novel, taking us away from London now and then to see what was going on elsewhere.

Sometimes the language used is not right for the setting (English houses don’t have ‘stoops’, for example) and I found that a bit distracting, but otherwise the atmosphere is convincing enough and it’s always interesting to read about the lives of ordinary, working-class people in the Tudor period as a change from all of the books dealing with the royal court. Oh, and I love Bianca’s cat, Hobs!

This is apparently the final book in the Bianca Goddard series. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.

Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

This is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series which aims to retell in fictional form the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. I enjoyed the previous three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – but I was particularly looking forward to reading this one, on Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Before I began, all I really knew about Anne was that Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in arranging her marriage to Henry, that the King was disappointed when he saw her in the flesh as she didn’t live up to the Hans Holbein portrait he had seen, and that after their divorce she lived in comfort and was given the honour of being described as the King’s ‘beloved sister’. I knew there must be more to Anne’s story than this and I hoped to learn more about her from this new novel.

Alison Weir refers to Anne as Anna, so I will do the same for the rest of this post. She also uses the spelling Kleve rather than the Anglicised version, Cleves, and tells us that this should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘waver’. The duchy of Kleve, in what is now Germany, is the setting for the first section of the novel, which describes Anna’s life prior to her marriage. Her journey to England and brief time as Henry’s wife follows, and finally an account of the period after the divorce, taking us all the way through to her death in 1557 at the age of forty-one.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger

I’ve always considered Anna to be much luckier than most of Henry’s other wives: she wasn’t beheaded, she didn’t die in childbirth while providing the king with an heir, and unlike the other divorced wife, Katherine of Aragon, she was treated with respect and generosity (at least while the king still lived). Of course, this doesn’t mean that life was always easy for her – it can’t have been very nice, after all, to have to leave your family and friends behind and travel abroad to marry a man you’ve never met, only to be rejected by your bridegroom almost on first sight. As portrayed here by Alison Weir, she is a sensible, pleasant and good-natured woman and I did have a lot of sympathy for her, but her story is certainly less tragic and turbulent than some of the other wives’.

Bearing in mind that this is a novel with around 500 pages and that there isn’t really a lot of factual information available on Anna von Kleve, I felt that there was too much padding and at times I found the book quite tedious and repetitive. Because Weir takes us right up to the time of Anna’s death, towards the end of the book a lot of attention is given to the next two queens, Katheryn Howard and Catherine Parr, as well as various incidents and plots that took place during the reigns of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. Unfortunately, by this point Anna is living away from court on her various estates, so she has little personal involvement and most of these events are described from afar which made them less exciting to read about than they should have been.

To flesh out Anna’s story and make it more interesting, Weir has imagined a romance for her in Kleve before she marries the king and this has repercussions that affect the rest of her life. I won’t go into too much detail, but looking at other reviews of this book, some readers liked this imaginary storyline while others hated it. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility as Henry did allegedly tell people that he ‘doubted Anna’s virginity’, but that could have just been an excuse for not consummating the marriage and demanding a divorce. However, even if it was true, there is no evidence to suggest who her previous lover may have been, so this aspect of the novel is entirely fictional.

Although this is my least favourite book in the series so far, I have a copy of the next one, Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen, on my NetGalley shelf and am anticipating a more entertaining read – and hopefully, given Katheryn’s much more dramatic life, one that needs to rely less heavily on fiction.

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

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.