In the Shadow of Queens: Tales from the Tudor Court by Alison Weir

This is a collection of thirteen short stories and novellas written by Alison Weir over the last few years to accompany her Six Tudor Queens series of novels. The stories were released as individual ebooks one by one as they were written, but are now available all together in one volume.

I have read all six of the full-length novels in the Six Tudor Queens series, each one exploring the life of one of the wives of Henry VIII. These short stories fill in the gaps between the novels, providing more insights or looking at things from a different perspective. They are arranged in roughly chronological order, starting before Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and ending after the death of Katherine Parr. I had already read one of them – The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today, about a Tower of London tour guide with a strange resemblance to Anne Boleyn – but the rest were all new to me.

Several of the stories are written from the perspectives of members of the Tudor dynasty whose voices weren’t heard in the main series. Arthur: Prince of the Roses, about Henry VIII’s ill-fated elder brother Arthur Tudor, The Unhappiest Lady in Christendom, narrated by the future Mary I, and The Princess of Scotland, about Henry’s niece Margaret Douglas, all fall into this category. Others provide more background and depth to the stories of the six wives themselves – for example The Chateau of Briis: A Lesson in Love explores Anne Boleyn’s years at the French court as maid of honour to Queen Claude and her potential link with a tower at Briis-sous-Forges called the Donjon Anne Boleyn.

The stories that were of most interest to me were the ones that follow characters on the periphery of the Tudor court or those who are living ‘in the shadow of queens’, as the title suggests. I particularly enjoyed reading about the court painter Susannah Horenbout, sent to Cleves to investigate the background of a potential bride for the King, and Lady Rochford, wife of George Boleyn, who was instrumental in the downfalls of both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. Naturally, given the time period and subject matter, some of the stories are quite sad, involving executions, imprisonments, betrayals and infant deaths. If you’re of a squeamish disposition, be aware that the final story, In This New Sepulchre, describes in graphic detail the shocking desecration of Katharine Parr’s tomb and corpse.

My favourite story in the collection was probably The Curse of the Hungerfords, which introduces us to Agnes Cotell, the second wife of Sir Edward Hungerford, who becomes involved in a 16th century murder case. Her narrative alternates with that of Anne Bassett, whom many people believed would become one of Henry VIII’s wives, although obviously that never happened. Weir keeps us waiting to see how the lives of these two women are connected and I thought this could easily have been developed into a longer novel, which would have allowed for more depth and detail.

I haven’t discussed all of the thirteen stories here, but I hope I’ve given you a good idea of what the book contains. I would have been disappointed if I’d paid for some of these stories individually in the e-short format, but as a collection I found this a worthwhile read. If you’ve read some or all of the Six Tudor Queens series it works well as a companion volume, but it’s not essential to have read any of those books before reading this one. Alison Weir’s next novel, Henry VIII: The Heart and the Crown, will be published in 2023, but in the meantime I have her latest non-fiction book, Queens of the Age of Chivalry, to read.

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

This is book 52 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir

When Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series came to an end last year with Katharine Parr: the Sixth Wife, I discovered that she would be moving further back in time for her next novel, The Last White Rose, which would tell the story of Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth lived through – and played a role in – one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses, so of course I wanted to read this one!

Born in 1466, Elizabeth of York is the eldest child of King Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville. With plans for a marriage to the Dauphin of France, Elizabeth’s future looks bright – until her father’s sudden death in 1483 sends everything into turmoil. Her younger brother, now Edward V, succeeds him, but before he can be crowned he is deposed by their uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, who reigns in his place as Richard III. Along with Elizabeth’s other brother, Richard of York, Edward soon disappears from public view completely. With marriage to the Dauphin now out of the question, Elizabeth discovers that Richard III is thinking of marrying her himself – something she is prepared to consider, despite the possibility that he may have been responsible for the disappearance of her brothers.

Then comes the Battle of Bosworth and another change of monarch; Richard is dead and Henry Tudor – Henry VII – has taken the throne. Henry is keen to unite his house of Lancaster with Elizabeth’s house of York by taking her as his wife, which means Elizabeth becomes queen at last! The years that follow will continue to be eventful, however, as she and Henry face rebellion from the Yorkist noblemen, the threat of various pretenders to the throne – and the birth of another future king, their son Henry VIII.

I enjoyed this book, with a few reservations which I’ll mention below. It’s very similar, of course, to the non-fiction book Alison Weir wrote several years ago (Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World), which is not surprising as most of the source material will obviously be the same. If you’ve read one you may feel that you don’t need to read the other, but I’m happy to have read both as this is a period of history that particularly interests me. I do think that as factual information on Elizabeth is quite limited, her story perhaps works better in fictional form where it’s more acceptable (in my opinion) for the author to put forward personal theories, interpretations and assumptions.

My main problem with this book was the bias towards Henry VII and against Richard III – although I was expecting that, as Alison Weir hasn’t made any secret of her views on this subject in her previous books! Just to be clear, I’m happy to keep an open mind on the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, in the absence of any real evidence, but I certainly can’t share Weir’s absolute conviction that Richard was definitely the culprit. Loving The Sunne in Splendour as I do makes it hard to think of him in a negative light, I suppose! And to be fair, I was impressed by the way Weir writes about Elizabeth’s feelings towards both Richard and Henry in this novel – her uncertainty over which of them, if either, has killed her brothers and how she reconciles that with the idea of first one, then the other, as a potential husband. I would have preferred the matter to have been left like that, but instead, developments towards the end of the book take away all the doubt and ambiguity.

I found Weir’s portrayal of the Woodville family interesting; Elizabeth clearly loves her mother and her Woodville aunts and uncles, but is not blind to their faults, questioning whether some of their actions, such as her mother’s decision to flee to sanctuary immediately that Richard took control of the young king, may have made things worse rather than better. This is such a long book, though! I read the ebook version but the print copy has over 600 pages. It gets off to a slow start with a lot of time spent on Elizabeth’s childhood, but by the middle of the book the pace picks up and it becomes much more compelling.

Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose is the first in a planned trilogy. The second book will be about Henry VIII and the third about Mary I. I’m looking forward to the one on Henry, as it should provide a very different perspective on the stories told in the Six Tudor Queens series!

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

This is book 35/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

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.

Six Tudor Queens: Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen by Alison Weir

Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series aims to retell, in fictional form, the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. This is the fifth book in the series so, as you would expect, the focus is on the fifth wife, Katheryn Howard. Having enjoyed the first three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – I had been slightly disappointed by the one on Anne of Cleves, but I’m pleased to say that I thought this latest book was a return to form.

When Henry VIII sets aside Anne of Cleves and takes nineteen-year-old Katheryn Howard as his next wife, he believes her to be pure, innocent and virtuous, qualities he values highly in a woman. Telling her she is his ‘rose without a thorn’, he is delighted with his young bride and looks forward to her producing another son to secure his lineage. But what Henry doesn’t know is that Katheryn has had more experience with men than he has been led to believe.

Katheryn is surprised to find that, despite the age difference, she is becoming genuinely fond of her obese and ailing husband. The man she really loves, however, is Thomas Culpeper, one of the King’s courtiers, whom she continues to meet in secret even knowing that if they are discovered both of their lives could be in danger. Then there’s Francis Dereham, with whom she was sexually involved before her marriage to the King; Francis won’t leave her alone, insisting that she had been pre-contracted to marry him before she ever met Henry, and Katheryn lives in fear of the King hearing of their relationship.

Of course, history tells us that Katheryn (as Alison Weir chooses to spell her name) will fail to keep her past a secret, that her love affairs with Dereham and Culpeper will become public knowledge and that she will face the same fate as her cousin, Anne Boleyn – but that doesn’t mean there is no tension in this retelling of her story. We know from the start that Katheryn is doomed and we have to watch her make one mistake after another, choose the wrong people to trust and head irreversibly down a path which will lead her to the scaffold. Despite knowing what will eventually happen, though, we are kept in suspense waiting for the moment when she will be betrayed and her secrets will be revealed to Henry.

The novel sticks closely to the known facts of Katheryn Howard’s life; although obviously there are some areas where Weir has to use her imagination or make decisions as to how certain things should be interpreted, she doesn’t seem to invent large chunks of the story as she did in Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets. I suppose Katheryn’s life is more well documented than Anne of Cleves’ and already dramatic enough without the need for too much invention.

Although Katheryn is frustratingly naive and reckless, I did have a lot of sympathy for her. A lot of time is spent discussing her early life before her marriage to Henry, when she lived in the household of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The household included several other young women who were also wards of the Duchess and it seems that there was very little supervision and discipline; Katheryn appears to have been easily influenced and sometimes even encouraged by the other girls to behave in a way that would have been seen as promiscuous in the 16th century. Because of the nature of Katheryn’s story, there is a lot of focus on her sex life and her liaisons with various men and this does become a little bit repetitive and tedious at times, but I still found it a more compelling read than the previous book in the series.

I am looking forward to the final novel, which isn’t available yet, but which I’m assuming will be about Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife.

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

This is book 8/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

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.

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.

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

While Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were getting married at Windsor Castle yesterday, I have spent the weekend absorbed in reading about the lives of a much earlier royal couple…Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen is the third book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series which aims to retell, in fictional form, the stories of all six of Henry’s wives. Having read the first two novels on Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, I have been looking forward to this new one; I’ve read about Jane less often than Katherine and Anne so I was interested in learning more about her and curious to see how she would be portrayed.

The novel begins by introducing us to Jane as a young girl, living with her parents and brothers and sisters at Wulfhall, the Seymours’ manor house in Wiltshire. For several years, Jane is convinced that she would like to become a nun but eventually she discovers that she has no true vocation for a religious life and she decides that her future lies at court instead. With the help of Sir Francis Bryan, a courtier and family friend, she obtains a place in the household of Katherine of Aragon as one of the queen’s maids-of-honour. Jane is devoted to the queen, but when Henry puts Katherine aside so that he can marry Anne Boleyn, she finds herself in the unwelcome position of having to serve Anne instead of Katherine.

When Jane catches the king’s eye, her ambitious brothers see this as an opportunity to make the Seymours the power behind the throne, while Jane herself is keen to use her new influence with Henry to help reinstate Katherine and her daughter, the Lady Mary. But then comes Anne Boleyn’s downfall and suddenly Jane, who has watched her younger sisters marrying before her and has almost given up hope of ever finding a husband herself, is elevated to the highest position of all: Queen of England, as Henry’s third wife. With only two daughters from his first two marriages, Henry is desperate for a son, but can Jane succeed where her two predecessors failed?

I have given a basic outline of the plot of The Haunted Queen in the two paragraphs above, but I’m sure none of it will be very surprising to anyone who already knows their Tudor history. Weir sticks closely to historical fact as far as possible although, as she explains in her author’s note, the information we have on Jane is limited and there are areas where she has to use her imagination and historical knowledge to fill in the gaps – for example, the possibility of Jane contemplating taking religious vows, the question of whether she could already have been pregnant at the time of her marriage to Henry, and the probable cause of her death shortly after giving birth in October 1537. There were enough new ideas and interpretations here to make this, for me, a worthwhile and compelling read.

Jane Seymour often comes across as one of the less interesting wives, particularly following Anne Boleyn, but I liked the way she was portrayed in this novel. Was Jane used as a pawn by Thomas Cromwell and her ambitious family, or was she as manipulative as they were in bringing down Anne Boleyn and taking her place as queen? Different authors and historians have different views on this, but Alison Weir’s version of Jane is somewhere between the two and I found it a realistic, convincing portrait of a quiet, compassionate young woman who did not set out to become queen but who seized the opportunity when it arose in the hope of using the power it would give her to help those she loved and to restore the ‘true religion’. Henry is depicted in quite a balanced and nuanced way too; we see a more loving side of him in his relationship with Jane, as well as his cruelty towards his previous two wives and his daughter, Mary. We also get to know some of the other characters who play a part in Jane’s story, including her brothers Edward and Thomas; I particularly liked the portrayal of Sir Francis Bryan, who is a good friend of the Seymour family, despite his reputation as ‘the vicar of Hell’.

I enjoyed reading about Jane’s early life at Wulfhall (marked by the scandal caused by her father’s affair with his daughter-in-law Catherine Fillol – something I have previously read about in Suzannah Dunn’s The May Bride) and, later in the book, her brief reign as queen, but the section in the middle which covers Henry’s attempts to divorce Katherine of Aragon and then his marriage to Anne Boleyn, was less interesting to me. This is because it’s the third time in this series that I’ve read about those same events. Obviously, the three women involved – Katherine, Anne and Jane – have very different views on the matter, but I still found it just a little bit tedious to read it all again. I was also not a fan of the supernatural elements which are suggested by the title, The Haunted Queen, but I’m sure other readers will disagree.

I am now looking forward to the fourth book in the series which will tell the story of Anne of Cleves, definitely the wife I know the least about!

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