Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

Tudors Peter Ackroyd has written over thirty non-fiction books, but Tudors is the first one I have read. I read a lot of historical fiction set in the Tudor period, so I thought it would be a good idea to read some factual information about the period and fill in some gaps in my knowledge. Tudors is the second volume in Ackroyd’s new The History of England series and while I would have liked to have started at the beginning with the first book, Foundation, the fact that I started with this one wasn’t a problem.

I was surprised to find that this book does not begin with the life of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. Instead, it starts with his death and the accession to the throne of his son, Henry VIII in 1509. Ackroyd then takes us through the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, ending with Elizabeth’s death in 1603 – a whole century of history. Throughout the book, his focus is on the subjects of religious change and reform and once I knew that this was the main theme of the book, the decision to include Henry VII in the previous volume rather than this one made more sense as the reformation of the English church only really began with Henry VIII’s break away from Rome.

As this was my first experience of Peter Ackroyd’s work and I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was pleased to find that Tudors was both well written and well researched, while not being too academic, which makes it a good choice for the general reader with an interest in English history. With so much history to cover, I thought Ackroyd did a good job of selecting which historical events to concentrate on and how long to spend discussing each one. He keeps everything in chronological order, rather than jumping around in time, which makes the book easy to follow and if you’re left wanting to know more about a particular person or topic, an extensive list of further reading is included at the end of the book.

My only problem with this book was that I don’t personally find the subject of religious reform particularly interesting so, for me, some sections were slightly dry and boring. Obviously the English Reformation was of huge importance and I can understand why Ackroyd chose to give it so much attention, but I would have preferred more detail on how these religious changes affected the daily lives of the English people as well as those of the monarchs and nobility. I would also have liked to delve deeper into the characters of some of the fascinating historical figures who lived during the Tudor period, but I felt that Ackroyd was more concerned with chronicling the events of the period rather than looking at character.

Six volumes are planned in this series and Tudors is only the second, so there’s a lot of history still to come!

I received a copy of this book for review from Netgalley.

Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George

Elizabeth I I don’t think I really need to write a plot summary of this book, do I? Elizabeth I: A Novel is exactly as the title suggests – a novel about Elizabeth I. Not just about Elizabeth, of course. Although the story is narrated by the queen herself, all the important historical figures of the period are here – from sailors and explorers (Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh), to politicians and advisers (Francis Walsingham, Robert Cecil), and poets and playwrights (Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare). And if this all seems very male-dominated, there’s also another very important female character, Lettice Knollys, who shares the narration with Elizabeth.

Lettice Knollys was Elizabeth’s cousin, but at the time when this novel begins the two haven’t spoken for many years following Lettice’s marriage to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a man with whom Elizabeth was once thought to have been romantically involved. Lettice has been banished from court and her hopes of being allowed to return rest on her son, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex – but when he becomes the centre of a rebellion against the queen, it seems Lettice’s hopes could be destroyed. Elizabeth’s relationship with Essex and how she deals with his rebellion form a big part of the story.

When I saw the size of this novel (nearly 700 pages) I expected it to cover the whole of Elizabeth’s life. It doesn’t. It starts towards the end of her reign, just before the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and takes us through only the last few years of her life (Elizabeth died in 1603). You can probably imagine, then, how in-depth and detailed the book is to take so many pages to cover such a short period of Elizabeth’s reign. The only problem with this is that things quickly start to become repetitive. The changing of the seasons every year is described in minute detail every time – a cold winter, a hot summer, a bad harvest…over and over again. I couldn’t help thinking that some editing would have improved things and made the book a more gripping read. As it was, it felt far too long and I started to get bored towards the end (and I don’t usually have a problem with long books).

Apart from this, Elizabeth I wasn’t a bad book and I could tell that a huge amount of research must have gone into it. Although I read lots of historical fiction, I haven’t actually read many books about Elizabeth so there was enough new material here to leave me with the feeling that I had really learned a lot. I should also point out that this is definitely not a romance or a bodice ripper – the focus is on Elizabeth herself, as a strong, intelligent, competent woman facing challenges both within her own kingdom and from overseas, including poverty, famine and the constant threat of attack from Spain. One aspect of Elizabeth’s life that I thought Margaret George portrayed very convincingly was the way she felt as she tried to come to terms with growing older and watching her most trusted friends and advisers dying one by one of old age.

I thought the choice of Lettice as the second viewpoint character was a good one. Not only do her chapters of the book give us a chance to see what’s going on away from Elizabeth’s court, but Lettice also offers a very different outlook on life. The two women have such different priorities and motivations – while Elizabeth considers herself ‘married to England’ and is always thinking of what is best for the country, the most important thing to Lettice is her family, particularly her son, the Earl of Essex. While there is not a lot of distinction between the narrative voices of the two women and without the chapter headings it might even have been difficult to tell who was narrating at times, I found Lettice an easier character to understand than Elizabeth – though I’m not sure if I can really say that I ‘liked’ either of them.

The other characters in the book felt less developed, maybe because we only saw them through the eyes of Elizabeth and Lettice, and despite having such an interesting collection of historical characters to work with, George never really succeeded in bringing them to life for me. The book isn’t badly written – quite the opposite, in fact – I just found it a bit dry and lacking any special magic. This is the first Margaret George book I’ve read, though, and the few problems I’ve mentioned here haven’t stopped me wanting to try her others!

Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood

Blood Sisters Blood Sisters is a non-fiction book which looks at the lives of seven women who all played an important part in the period of history known as The Wars of the Roses or the Cousins’ War – the conflict between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, two branches of the English royal family. These seven women are listed below:

* Margaret of Anjou (Marguerite), Queen to Henry VI

* Cecily Neville, the mother of two Kings of England: Edward IV and Richard III

* Elizabeth Woodville, Queen to Edward IV and mother of the ‘Princes in the Tower’.

* Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV and Richard III and wife to the Duke of Burgundy.

* Anne Neville, wife of Richard III and daughter of the Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker)

* Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII).

* Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter and Henry VII’s wife.

Notice that I’ve defined these seven women by their relationships to the men, the Kings, and it would have been almost impossible not to do that, as their connections to the Plantagenet and Tudor Kings of England are the reasons they are still remembered today. But in this book, Sarah Gristwood shows that each of them also had an interesting story of her own and was historically important in her own right. Rather than devoting one section of the book to each woman and telling their stories separately, she weaves them together which makes sense considering that some of the women were related and several of them did meet or interact with the others in some way.

While Blood Sisters was very compelling and readable non-fiction, I have to admit I didn’t learn much that I didn’t already know about most of the women. The lives of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort were covered in another book I’ve read, The Women of the Cousins’ War, and a lot of the same information appears here too – though I suppose there’s a limit to how much information is actually available. Of the seven featured in this book, Margaret of Burgundy was the one I previously knew the least about and so I was particularly interested in reading about her.

As well as telling us about the major historical events of the period, Gristwood also gives us a lot of information to help us understand what daily life was like for these women: for example, records of household accounts, and descriptions of clothes worn at coronations or pageants and the dishes served at banquets. I also enjoyed reading about the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower and I appreciate the fact that Gristwood presented some of the different theories and possibilities rather than just blaming Richard III! A lot of attention is also given to the stories of the various Yorkist pretenders to the throne who caused so many problems for Henry VII during his reign, especially Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the younger son of Edward IV.

It’s frustrating that so much of the information we have about this period comes from the work of Thomas More and others who were writing during the Tudor period and so were likely to be biased, but Gristwood does take care to point out when something may not be completely accurate and when we need to use some caution. She explains which of her sources may have been unreliable or may have had their own reasons for wanting to portray a person or event in a certain way.

I would recommend Blood Sisters to anyone interested in learning more about this period from a female perspective and it’s also an ideal book for readers like myself who don’t often read non-fiction but want to build on the knowledge they’ve already gained through reading historical fiction.

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

“And what of those who didn’t know him? What happens, too, when all who knew him are dead, when people know only what they’ve been told?”

When I read The White Queen by Philippa Gregory earlier in the year, I became intrigued by Richard III, the Wars of the Roses and the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. The Sunne in Splendour was recommended to me as the best fictional account of Richard III, so I immediately bought a copy – and it has taken me until now to pick it up and read it. I think one of the things that was putting me off was the sheer size of the book; it’s one of those books that is physically difficult to hold because it’s so thick and heavy. But as soon as I started reading I knew I was going to love this book. Not only did it turn out to be the best historical fiction book I’ve read for a long time, it was also one of the best books of any type that I’ve read this year.

The Sunne in Splendour tells the complete life story of Richard III from childhood to death. Penman portrays Richard as a sympathetic figure who has been unfairly treated by history. Sadly, he is often thought of today as the villain of Shakespeare’s Richard III: the evil hunchback who murdered his nephews. It’s worth remembering though, that Shakespeare lived in Tudor England – and it was Henry Tudor who defeated Richard, the last of the Plantagenet kings.

The Wars of the Roses is the term used to describe a series of battles and rebellions that took place between two branches of the English royal family, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, during the late fifteenth century. I already had some basic knowledge of the period before I started reading this book, but even if you don’t I think Penman makes it easy enough to understand. Sometimes a story can suffer from the author’s attempts to include every little bit of interesting information they’ve uncovered in their research, but that’s not actually a problem here. Yes, there’s an enormous amount of detail, but everything feels necessary and helps to build up a vivid picture of Richard’s world.

The author really brought the characters to life and made them feel like real people who I could understand and care about rather than just names on the pages of a school history book. The number of characters with similar names could have caused confusion but I thought Penman handled the problem very well making them easy to identify by using nicknames (Ned, Dickon, Bess etc) or titles (Warwick, Clarence, Montagu) and Edward of Lancaster is given the French version of his name, Edouard, to distinguish him from Edward of York.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, with surprisingly little of the story being from Richard’s perspective. Much of what we learn about Richard we learn through the eyes of his family, friends and enemies. A lot of time is devoted to the romance between Richard and Anne Neville, but what really fascinated me was the complex relationship between the York brothers, Richard, Edward and George.

As you might expect, there are a number of battle scenes – something that I don’t usually enjoy, but these were so well written that I was able to follow exactly what was happening and could even form mental pictures of the battlefields and the positions of the two opposing armies. The Battle of Barnet kept me up late on a work night and the Battle of Tewkesbury was even more compelling. I loved the way we got to see the human side of the battles, the emotions of the people on the battlefield, rather than just descriptions of the military tactics. While Richard and Edward are clearly supposed to be our ‘heroes’, it’s a testament to Penman’s writing that I could also cry at the deaths of their ‘enemies’.

Being almost 900 pages long, it took me a long time to read this book, but that was mainly because it was so emotionally intense in places that I couldn’t read too much at once. And also, I was dreading reaching the end. The problem with a book like this is that you know what’s ultimately going to happen (at least you do if you have some background knowledge of the period or have read about it before) so I knew what the eventual fate of the characters was going to be.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I can’t believe I’ve never read anything by Sharon Penman before now. At least I know I’ll have hours of reading pleasure ahead of me as I work through the rest of her novels!