The Great Matter Monologues by Thomas Crockett

So many novels have been written dealing with ‘the King’s Great Matter’ – Henry VIII’s struggle to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn – that it must be getting very difficult for authors to find new and interesting ways to approach the subject. Thomas Crockett’s solution is to tell the story in the form of alternating monologues written from the perspectives of Henry, Katherine and Anne in an attempt to create a theatrical feel, as if the three main players were standing on a stage sharing their thoughts directly with the audience.

If you’ve read about this period before, there’s nothing very new here; for the most part, the plot follows the known historical facts, except where it’s necessary for the author to make personal choices on how to interpret certain points – for example, the question of whether Katherine’s earlier marriage to Henry’s brother, Prince Arthur, had been consummated (this was the basis for Henry’s claim that his own marriage to Katherine should be declared invalid). The appeal of the book, for me, was not so much what it was about but the way in which it was written, taking us into the minds of Katherine and Anne – and also Henry, as most of the other Tudor novels I’ve read have focused on the women and not really given Henry a chance to tell his side of the story.

Despite them sharing their private thoughts and emotions with us, I didn’t find any of the three narrators at all likeable. It’s certainly easiest to have sympathy for Katherine as she was treated so badly by Henry, blamed for their failure to produce a son and cast off to live the rest of her life under increasingly poor and unhealthy conditions as she is put under pressure to agree to the divorce. However, as she spends most of this period in the confines of the damp, cold castles to which she has been banished, not much actually happens to Katherine over the course of the novel and I felt that her monologues became very repetitive.

Anne Boleyn’s voice and story are stronger and more engaging as she talks about her struggle to be accepted as Henry’s queen and her own failure to give birth to a male heir, before falling out of favour in her turn. She is very much the villain of the book, though, which is often the case in Tudor novels and I would have preferred something more nuanced rather than yet another portrayal of Anne as ruthless, spiteful and consumed by hatred for Katherine and her daughter, Mary. As for Henry, it’s difficult to have much sympathy for him, knowing how he treated his wives, but I did feel his frustration over how long the Great Matter was taking to be resolved and his worries for the future of the kingdom should he die before the succession was secured.

The novel goes into a huge amount of detail regarding every aspect of the Great Matter and although the short, rapidly switching monologues made it tempting to keep saying ‘just one more chapter’, I didn’t find it a particularly quick or easy read. As part of the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, there’s an absence of punctuation to indicate when someone is speaking and that made it difficult to follow the dialogue at times. Still, overall I enjoyed reading this book and appreciate Thomas Crockett’s attempt to do something a little bit different. Although I’m not really a fan of audiobooks, I do think this particular novel would work well in audio format, with different narrators expressing the unique voices and personalities of the three characters.

In case it has escaped anyone’s notice, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light will be published later this week, and I know some readers have been re-reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in preparation. I decided not to do that, but The Great Matter Monologues, in which Thomas Cromwell plays an important part, covers the same period of history, so this was the perfect time to read this book!

Thanks to John Hunt Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review 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.

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.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies This is the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second in a planned trilogy of novels telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister.

While Wolf Hall was concerned with Cromwell’s rise to power, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and the process that led to Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, in Bring up the Bodies the King has grown dissatisfied with his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who has failed to give him a male heir, and he is now turning his attentions to Jane Seymour. Beginning in 1535, just after Wolf Hall ends, this book follows Cromwell as he attempts to find a solution to Henry’s problem. It’s not an easy task but Cromwell has already proven himself to be an expert at negotiating complex political situations and getting what he wants, while also trying to do what he believes is best for the King and for England.

I think most of us probably know what happened to Anne Boleyn and what her eventual fate would be, so I won’t say much more about the plot of this book. But although I’ve read about Anne Boleyn’s downfall many times before, I have never read about it from this perspective or in so much detail. By allowing us to follow events through Cromwell’s eyes, Mantel makes what to many of us is a familiar story feel like a fresh and interesting one – and in a world already filled with Tudor novels this is a real accomplishment!

I was intrigued by the suggestion that Cromwell had his own motives for plotting the demise of Anne and the men who were brought down with her. I don’t suppose we can ever know what thoughts were really going through Cromwell’s mind or what made him act the way he did, but Mantel’s theory was interesting. As in the previous book, Cromwell is a fascinating character and portrayed as neither a hero nor a villain. He’s ruthless, clever, ambitious and (in this book, at least) vengeful, but away from the court and the world of politics, we are shown a more human side to him. Through his relationship with his son, Gregory, and through his frequent memories of his wife and two daughters and his mentor Thomas Wolsey, who are all now dead, we see that he is also a man who loves his family and is loyal to his friends.

You could probably read Bring up the Bodies without having read Wolf Hall first, especially if you already have a good knowledge of Tudor history, but I would still recommend reading Wolf Hall before starting this one. It’s not completely necessary but will help you to understand Cromwell’s personality and how his mind works. You will also be introduced to the members of Cromwell’s large household (made up of extended family, servants and employees) and the other secondary characters who appear in this book.

Mantel’s novels are not easy reads but I did find this book much easier to read than Wolf Hall, maybe because I knew what to expect from her writing style this time. One criticism that I and many other readers had of Wolf Hall was regarding Mantel’s use of the pronoun ‘he’ without making it obvious who ‘he’ refers to. It was usually safe to assume that ‘he’ was Cromwell but it could still be confusing, especially when there were a lot of male characters in the same scene. In this book, Mantel still uses ‘he’ but sometimes clarifies it by adding ‘he, Cromwell’ which makes things easier to follow. I also found this a much quicker read than Wolf Hall, as it’s not as long and is faster paced and more focused on one subject – the fall of Anne Boleyn.

Now that I’ve caught up with the first two books in the trilogy, I can join those of you who are patiently (or maybe impatiently) awaiting the third one!

The Queen’s Promise by Lyn Andrews

The Queens Promise Everyone knows that Anne Boleyn was one of the six wives of Henry VIII, but did you know that before her marriage to the King, Anne was secretly betrothed to another Henry – Henry Percy, son and heir of the 5th Earl of Northumberland? The Queen’s Promise is the story of Anne and Henry’s relationship.

When you try a new author for the first time you can never be quite sure what to expect. Until I read The Queen’s Promise I was unfamiliar with Lyn Andrews’ work, but after doing some research I discovered that she has written many bestselling family sagas which, although they have obviously been very successful, don’t look like books that would appeal to me. The Queen’s Promise seems to be a new genre for Andrews; I think this is her first historical fiction novel and based on this one, I hope she writes more. I’ll admit that when I first started to read it I thought it would be just another Tudor court romance – an impression not helped by the title and cover of the novel which do absolutely nothing to set the book apart from others of this type – but I was pleased to find that although there was certainly a romantic aspect to the story, it also had a detailed and well-researched historical background with almost as much attention given to the history and politics of the period as to the romance between Anne and Henry Percy.

Anne’s marriage to Henry VIII and the events leading to her death have been well documented in both fiction and non-fiction. However, in this novel there is actually more focus on Henry Percy than there is on Anne, which was the right choice in my opinion. Anne is such a popular subject for historical fiction and there’s not much that can be said about her that hasn’t been said before, but Henry Percy, on the other hand, is a historical figure who is less well known and Andrews does go into quite a lot of depth on not just his relationship with Anne, but also his life before and after Anne.

As so much of Henry’s life was spent in Northumberland, we are given a lot of information about the Border Reivers, who raided both sides of the English/Scottish border, and Henry’s role as Lord Warden of the Marches. Life in the borders was wild and dangerous in those days and it was not easy to maintain law and order there. We see how difficult it was to keep the peace between Northumberland’s feuding families and protect the people from outlaws while always being aware that there could be an attack from the Scottish side of the border at any time. I’m always looking out for books set in Northumberland as I’m from the North East myself and it was interesting to read about so many places I know – Alnwick, Hexham, Prudhoe, Warkworth – and to have the chance to add to my knowledge of the region’s history.

I really liked the way Henry Percy is portrayed as being refreshingly different to most of the other young men at the Tudor court – loyal, sincere and honest, but also quiet, cultured and sensitive, qualities which sadly make him a disappointment to his father, the Earl. It’s not a happy story for Henry – he also has to fight a recurring illness and to come to terms with being forced into a loveless marriage to Mary Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter – and of course it isn’t a happy story for Anne either. I did like the young Anne we meet in the earlier chapters of the book, though after she begins her rise to becoming Queen she becomes much harder and a less sympathetic character.

Much of Henry’s and Anne’s story is seen through the eyes of Henry’s friend and squire, Will Chatton, who joins Henry’s household as a boy of eleven and later becomes a successful merchant. Will and his family are purely fictitious characters but they add another interesting angle to the story. As well as allowing us to observe Henry and Anne from a third perspective, the inclusion of the Chatton family gives us the chance to explore another side of Tudor society, away from life at court.

I enjoyed this book, after my initial concerns had proved to be unfounded. It was interesting, very readable and the focus on Henry Percy makes it slightly different from other Anne Boleyn-based historical fiction. It also raises the intriguing question of whether, if Anne and Henry had been allowed to be together as they wished, what impact would this have had on the future of the royal family and the whole course of history?