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.

The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today by Alison Weir

This is one of several e-shorts – short stories published exclusively in ebook format – which form part of Alison Weir’s new series on the wives of Henry VIII, Six Tudor Queens. I hadn’t had much interest in reading them until I noticed that this one, The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today, was (and still is, at the moment) free to download from Amazon. It seemed a good opportunity to see what they were like.

Having read the first two full-length novels in the series (on Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn) and with the third one, Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, on my NetGalley shelf ready to start soon, this was the perfect time to read The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today because, chronologically, it provides a sort of bridge between the Anne Boleyn book and the Jane Seymour book.

The story is set in the modern day and is written from the perspective of historian Jo Maddox, who is taking a group of tourists around the Tower of London. Jo has arranged for a special guide to lead part of the tour and provide some history on Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, who was of course imprisoned and beheaded at the Tower. When the guide arrives, Jo is impressed by her resemblance to Anne herself – right down to the authentic Tudor costume and French accent. But then another dark-haired young woman catches her eye and Jo begins to feel as though she is seeing Anne Boleyn everywhere she looks.

This really is a very short story! I had expected it to be longer as the book was seventy pages long, but most of those seventy pages are actually devoted to the opening chapters of the first three Six Tudor Queens novels. I didn’t need to read these as I’ve already read the first two and am about to start the third, so the story itself is disappointingly short and can literally be read in just a few minutes. Maybe the other e-shorts in the series have more substance, which could explain why this one is being offered for free.

Having said that, the story is quite entertaining, providing some information on the history of the Tower and separating the facts about Anne Boleyn from the myths. There’s even some humour:

‘Didn’t Thomas Cromwell play a large part in bringing down Anne Boleyn?’ a guest asked.

‘Cromwell!’ The guide’s eyes flashed. ‘Oh yes! He hated me, for he feared I would ruin him. So he pre-empted me. He was a man without scruples.’

‘Not if you read Hilary Mantel!’ muttered one of the group.

The other e-shorts in the series so far are Arthur: Prince of the Roses, The Blackened Heart, The Chateau of Briis, The Grandmother’s Tale and The Unhappiest Lady in Christendom, all of which fit before or after one of the three main novels. It seems that they are currently not available outside the UK, although according to Alison Weir’s website her US publisher is including some of the stories in the paperback editions of the novels. I think that’s a better idea anyway as if all of the stories are as short as this one I don’t think it’s really worth spending money on buying them all separately. I’m not planning to read any more of them, but I’m looking forward to starting Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen.

Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

In Alison Weir’s new non-fiction book, Queens of the Conquest, she explores the lives of the five queens of England who followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. These five, in the order they appear in the book, are Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror), Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain (the two wives of Henry I), Matilda of Boulogne (wife of King Stephen), and the Empress Maud, Henry I’s daughter, who was never actually crowned but called herself Lady of the English. Lots of Matildas, then – Maud is also referred to in many sources as Matilda – but with each queen discussed chronologically (apart from where their stories overlap), things aren’t as confusing as you might imagine!

Apart from Maud, whom I have read about several times in fiction, I knew very little about the other queens whose stories are covered in this book. Considering the general lack of information available to us today – we don’t even have a clear idea of what these women looked like due to the absence of contemporary portraits – I think Weir still does a good job of providing as full and comprehensive an account of each queen’s life as she possibly could. There is inevitably a lot of padding – facts about medieval life, descriptions of castles and long passages quoted from letters – but if you don’t know a lot about the period, most of this should still be of interest.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of this book as my own knowledge is very limited, but Weir does provide references to back up most of what she says. In fact, the additional material which includes the references, sources, maps etc takes up about a quarter of the book! There are still times, though, when she is forced to speculate and make assumptions about how one of the queens may have felt or behaved, and resorts to using words like ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’. Usually I prefer more certainty when I’m reading non-fiction, but in this case, I do understand that with the primary sources being so sparse, some guesswork was necessary to round out the characters of the queens and to make this into an entertaining read rather than a dry textbook.

15th century depiction of the Empress Matilda/Maud

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was the section describing the period of civil war known as the Anarchy during which Maud (who was named as her father Henry I’s heir) and Matilda of Boulogne (whose husband, Stephen, was Henry I’s nephew and another claimant to the throne) found themselves on opposite sides. As I’ve read several novels which have this period as a setting, it was good to read a factual account this time instead of a fictional one, while still recognising some of the most interesting episodes, such as Maud’s escape in the snow from the besieged Oxford Castle.

Maud certainly didn’t seem to have made herself very popular, having a reputation for being proud, haughty and arrogant, but I have always assumed that this was probably due to the prejudice of the male chroniclers of the time against a female ruler who didn’t behave the way they expected a woman to behave. Weir points out that Matilda of Boulogne often acted in a similar way but her actions were seen as acceptable because she was taking them on behalf of her husband, King Stephen, rather than for herself, but she also suggests that Maud’s overbearing attitude and poor decision-making may have been due to mood swings caused by early menopause or a long-term illness she suffered following childbirth. This was the one place where I thought there may have been some bias creeping in, as Weir clearly seems to like Matilda of Boulogne much more than the Empress – and I couldn’t help wondering what caused the aggression and lack of judgement of some of the kings mentioned in the book!

18th-century impression of Matilda of Flanders

I was also interested to read the various theories and legends behind Matilda of Flanders’ marriage to William the Conqueror and the controversies surrounding Matilda of Scotland’s marriage to Henry I (she had previously spent some time in a convent so it was debatable whether or not she was free to marry). I felt that I learned very little about Adeliza, though; while she is described as being particularly beautiful and helping to promote the arts, it seemed that she had less power and political significance than the other queens.

Although I sometimes felt that too much time was devoted to the general history of the period when I would have preferred more analysis of the specific lives and characters of the five queens, I did find Queens of the Conquest a fascinating read. Apparently this is just the first of four volumes which will take us through the rest of the medieval queens to the end of the Wars of the Roses. I will be looking out for the next one.

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

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

This is the second novel in Alison Weir’s new series telling the stories of the six wives of Henry VIII. I read the first book last year – on Katherine of Aragon – and enjoyed it; now, as you would expect, it’s the turn of the second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Like the first novel, this is a straightforward account of Anne’s life, beginning with her early years and taking us right through to her beheading in 1536. Whether you only have a basic knowledge of Anne’s story or whether you’ve read about her many times before, you can expect to learn at least something new from this book as it’s very long, very detailed and very thorough, leaving little out. As with the Katherine of Aragon book, I question whether it was really necessary to include such a lot of detail, but I did enjoy the book overall so won’t complain about that too much!

I found the opening chapters of the book particularly interesting because this section covered the part of Anne’s life with which I was least familiar – her time spent in the Netherlands at the court of Margaret of Austria, and in France serving first Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor, then Queen Claude, wife of the French king Francis I. Her experiences at these courts had an important influence on Anne’s life and character; she was able to observe the rule of these three very different women, she was exposed to new ideas and literature – including the works of women writers such as Christine de Pizan – and she began to develop her interest in religious reform.

Once Anne returns to England and catches the eye of Henry VIII, I felt I was on much more familiar ground. Perhaps for this reason I found the middle section of the novel tediously repetitive as Henry attempts to have his marriage to Katherine annulled, leaving him free to marry Anne. Of course, Alison Weir is only following historical fact here: the King’s Great Matter, as it became known, did go on for years and must have been very frustrating, to say the least, for Anne and for Henry – but it doesn’t make for exciting reading.

While this is very much Anne Boleyn’s own story, all of the other historical figures of the period are here, from statesmen such as Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell to Anne’s brother and sister, George and Mary. You may or not may be happy with the way these characters and others are depicted, depending on your own interpretation of events and on where your sympathies lie. When it comes to Anne, though, I think Weir has done a good job of making her feel convincingly human – not a heroine and not a villain, just a flawed and complex woman who loves the idea of being queen more than she loves the king himself.

As I’ve said, Alison Weir does stick closely to historical fact for most of the novel and I had no problems with the accuracy, although I accept that I am not an expert on Tudor history by any means – I read a lot of it, but not as much as some readers! She does take some liberties in imagining Anne’s feelings for Henry Norris – one of the men implicated in her trial – but with a lack of primary sources allowing us to access Anne’s own thoughts, how can we know how she really felt? There is also a scene in which Anne meets Leonardo da Vinci which I didn’t believe would be true, but in her notes at the end of the book Weir explains why she thinks it could have happened, while confirming that there is no real evidence for it.

The final chapters of the book describe Anne’s downfall and even though I knew what would happen to Anne, it was still sad to watch her story move towards its inevitable end. I found the closing scene slightly bizarre, but Alison Weir does talk about that in her author’s note! We also see the increasing prominence of Jane Seymour in the king’s life – Jane will be the subject of the third Tudor Queens book and I’m already looking forward to seeing how she will be portrayed.

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

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir

Six Tudors Queens - Katherine of Aragon I thought I’d read enough about the Tudors, but it seems that I was wrong. Despite having read about Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, several times before, I was still able to enjoy this new fictional account of her life – the first in a planned series called Six Tudor Queens in which Alison Weir will devote one novel to each of Henry’s six wives.

Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen is a straightforward retelling of Katherine’s story, beginning in 1501 with her arrival in England at the age of sixteen to marry Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The young Katherine is nervous and homesick but as the daughter of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella she is determined to accustom herself to her new country as quickly as possible and prove herself a worthy future queen of England. Her future is thrown into doubt, however, when Arthur dies just a few months into their marriage, leaving Katherine a widow.

In 1509 – after a long period of uncertainty – Katherine marries Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, who has just succeeded to the throne as Henry VIII. At first, Katherine is full of optimism; she and Henry are in love and looking forward to the birth of their first child, which they hope will be one of many. Unfortunately, the reader knows what is coming: a series of miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths (a daughter, Mary, would be the only child to survive), and the breakdown of Katherine’s marriage as Henry turns his attentions to Anne Boleyn. A story which began with so much hope and happiness ends in disappointment and heartbreak, but through it all Katherine stands by her conviction that she is Henry’s lawful wife and his one true queen.

As I said above, I have read other novels which tell Katherine’s story in fictional form, but this is certainly the most detailed and the most thorough. While most books tend to concentrate on Katherine’s later years and Henry’s mission to have their marriage annulled (which came to be described as ‘the King’s Great Matter), Alison Weir spends a lot of time on the period before they were married when Katherine, as Prince Arthur’s widow, was living at the court of Henry VII. I enjoyed reading about all the intrigue taking place within Katherine’s circle as her dowry of plate and jewels becomes the centre of a power struggle between strict Spanish duennas and manipulative ambassadors.

There were times, though, when I wondered whether this book really needed to be so long and so detailed. Alison Weir is a historian who writes non-fiction as well as fiction, but this is a novel rather than a factual biography and I think there were probably things which could easily have been left out to help the story flow better. Still, because Alison Weir does write so much non-fiction, I could trust that the background to this novel would have been fully researched and I had no problems regarding accuracy. However, there are a few controversies surrounding Katherine over which historians disagree, such as the question of whether her marriage to Arthur was ever consummated (Henry used this as the basis to his claim that his own marriage to Katherine was invalid). As Katherine is the heroine of the novel, we are asked to accept her own version of events (that is, that she and Arthur never consummated their marriage) and believe that she was telling the truth.

This is not an unbiased portrayal of Katherine, then; the whole novel is written from her own perspective, so we don’t hear anyone else’s side of the story. Because Katherine falls in love with Henry early on and continues to love him no matter what, she rarely attributes any blame to him – whatever he does is always the fault of someone else: usually Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell or Anne Boleyn. It’s understandable, I suppose, that Anne Boleyn is very much the villain of Katherine’s story, but Anne will be the central focus of the second book in the series so it will be interesting to have a chance to see things from her point of view.

I thought this was an enjoyable start to a new series and I’m now looking forward to reading about the other five queens!

My Commonplace Book: June 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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Daisy

“Do you know what, that does interest me. Not the fact that he was popular before he was arrested. He’s a good-looking man, there’s nothing remarkable in that. What fascinates me is the number of women who, by all accounts, write to him in prison. Why would they do that, do you think?”

“All notorious killers have a fan club,” he says.

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton (2016)

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Oh, there was pomp and pageantry and all the splendour of trumpets and gold brocade and wine flowing from the conduits, but there was something more that I can only think of as passion – the passion of a queen for her people and of the people for their queen. Already Elizabeth had the gift of investing the most ordinary action with an almost symbolic nobility, and, conversely, the ability to draw a touch of humanity from the most solemn ceremony.

The Virgin Queen by Maureen Peters (1972)

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At heart he could not abide sense in women. He liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible, because they were then in reality what he held them to be, and wished them to be — inferior, toys to play with, to amuse a vacant hour, and to be thrown away.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (1849)

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Katherine of Aragon

Katherine thanked him, drew the curtains and huddled back into her furs. She had found Prince Henry a little disturbing. He was a handsome boy, with undeniable charm, and even in those brief moments he had dominated the courtesies. Arthur had been reserved and diffident, and she could not stop herself from wondering how different things would have been had she been betrothed to his brother. Would she have felt more excited? More in awe? She felt disloyal even thinking about it. How could she be entertaining such thoughts of a child of ten? Yet it was so easy to see the future man in the boy. And it was worrying to realise how effortlessly Arthur could be overshadowed by his younger brother. Pray God Prince Henry was not overambitious!

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen by Alison Weir (2016)

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He claims to be himself the author of the nickname. Signor Pronto, he says, was a character in a popular farce, — a most obliging person who always turned up in the nick of time to arrange matters for everybody. The catch word of the farce was: Pronto will manage it! Some great lady was lamenting the difficulties of arranging charades at her country house party; ‘But,’ she cried, ‘I expect Mr. Lufton tomorrow and he will manage it for me.’ At which Crockett, who was present, said: ‘Oh ay! Pronto will manage it.’ After that they all called Lufton Pronto behind his back.

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy (1953)

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Gate_Of_Hay_Castle

Catrin woke and stared round in the dim light of a flickering fire. Her heart was pounding from the horror of the dream. The dream she had shared, did she but know it, with another woman; a dream she had dreamt recently, at home in Sleeper’s Castle. But she wasn’t at home. She pulled her cloak around her, shivering, confused as to where she was. Then she remembered.

Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine (2016)

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She had not come to God with her wreath or with her sins and sorrows, not as long as the world still possessed a drop of sweetness to add to her goblet. But now she had come, after she had learned that the world is like an alehouse: The person who has no more to spend is thrown outside the door.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1920)

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Favourite books this month: Kristin Lavransdatter, Daisy in Chains and Troy Chimneys