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.

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!

Here Comes the King by Philip Lindsay

Here Comes the King Philip Lindsay (1906-1958) was an Australian author of historical fiction. His books have been out of print in recent years but are now being made available to a modern audience in ebook form by one of my favourite independent publishers, Endeavour Press. Here Comes the King, a 1933 novel about Katherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper, is the first of his books that I’ve read.

Katherine (or Catherine, but I’m sticking to the spelling used in the novel) is a young woman of seventeen or eighteen when she marries Henry VIII at Oatlands Palace and becomes his fifth wife. Her predecessor, Anne of Cleves, has recently been set aside by the king, who believes he was misled as to her appearance. The new queen’s beauty and youthful spirit are much more pleasing to Henry, who calls her his ‘rose without a thorn’. Katherine, though, is less enamoured with her fat, gluttonous, fifty-year-old husband who is suffering from painful leg ulcers and whose moods are becoming increasingly volatile. Although Henry is not generally unkind to her, she is tempted into an affair with the handsome young courtier, Thomas Culpeper – an affair which will lead to both their downfalls.

Here Comes the King is written in the third person from the perspective of several different characters including Culpeper, Henry and Katherine herself, as well as Will Sommers, the king’s fool, Francis Dereham, another man once romantically involved with Katherine, and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, who helps to arrange Katherine’s secret meetings with Culpeper. Jane and Sommers were both in a difficult position, knowing or suspecting what was going on and unsure of what to do with that knowledge, and this made them interesting characters to read about.

However, I felt that I didn’t get to know Katherine very well. She is portrayed as a pretty, flirtatious, immature young girl, and while this does seem to be a widely held view of what the real Katherine was like, I would still have preferred her character to be given a little more depth. Even when she was the viewpoint character, I never felt that I really knew what she was thinking. Culpeper’s character is better written; he is shown in a negative light, being irresponsible, impulsive and a heavy drinker (and allegedly guilty of both rape and murder, although these things are only briefly mentioned as they happen outside the scope of the novel), but his thoughts and feelings come through strongly.

I am far from being an expert on Katherine’s life and her time as Henry’s queen, so I can’t really comment on Lindsay’s accuracy, but the story did seem to follow quite faithfully the general outlines of Katherine’s and Culpeper’s lives. He incorporates things which are known to be historical fact, such as the text of Katherine’s incriminating letter to Culpeper (complete with grammatical mistakes; she is thought to be the least well educated of Henry’s wives) as well as things which may or may not be true but which have become part of the legends surrounding Katherine: practising laying her head on the block the night before her execution, for example, and declaring that “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper”.

I had no problems with Lindsay’s writing (it’s slightly flowery and over-descriptive in places but otherwise feels surprisingly contemporary for a 1930s book) and I would read more of his work, but I didn’t find this particular novel very compelling, maybe because it’s so romance-centred. Admittedly, it would be difficult to write a book about Katherine Howard and not focus on her love affairs; as she spent such a short period as queen and died so young, she left less of a legacy than some of Henry’s other wives, and I think this is why her story has never appealed to me very much. Maybe one of Lindsay’s other novels would interest me more than this one did.

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

The Kings Curse This is the sixth and final volume in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series which explores the Wars of the Roses from a female perspective. The books can be read in any order, although I would recommend reading them in the order of publication. Previous novels in the series have introduced us to Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Anne Neville and Elizabeth of York; this one, The King’s Curse, tells the story of Margaret Pole, another woman with an important part to play in the history of the period.

Margaret is the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of the last two Plantagenet kings, Edward IV and Richard III. With a new dynasty – the Tudors – now on the throne of England, Margaret’s Plantagenet blood means that she and her family are seen as a threat. At the point when the novel opens, her brother has already been executed on the order of Henry VII and Margaret herself has been married off to a minor knight, Richard Pole – a man she respects but does not love.

When the King and his wife, Margaret’s cousin Elizabeth of York, send their son and heir, Prince Arthur, into Margaret’s care at Ludlow Castle, she becomes a friend and confidante of the Prince’s Spanish bride, Katherine of Aragon. Arthur dies following a sudden illness and Katherine is left a widow – but not for long, as his younger brother, the newly crowned Henry VIII, decides to marry the Princess himself.

Margaret is by Katherine’s side as she tries and fails to give Henry a male heir, losing one baby after another. But when Henry finally tires of Katherine and turns his attention to Anne Boleyn, Margaret discovers that her loyalty to the Queen has cast suspicion on the Plantagenets once again. Can Margaret convince the King that she and her family can be trusted, while still continuing to offer friendship to Katherine and her only surviving child, Princess Mary?

After the disappointment of the previous novel, The White Princess, I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this one much more. I thought the writing was better, the story was more interesting and Margaret was a much stronger character than Elizabeth of York. I got the impression that Gregory herself had enjoyed writing this novel, perhaps more than some of the others in the series.

I’ve read the story of Henry VIII, his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and subsequent divorce many times before, but it was interesting to see familiar events retold from a different point of view. Margaret is perfectly placed to know what is going on, being a cousin to the King’s mother, friend to Katherine and governess to Princess Mary. Through Margaret’s eyes we watch Henry’s transformation into a cruel tyrant unable to tolerate anyone disagreeing with him, we see how the people of England respond to Thomas Cromwell’s dissolution of the monasteries, we witness the public reaction to Anne Boleyn, and we learn how Mary feels about being cast aside and disinherited.

As well as being an observer of the royal court, however, Margaret has her own problems to deal with away from court as she works to keep herself and her children safe. Two of her sons – Lord Montague and Arthur – have positions at court and another, Reginald, is sent to Padua to study and is given the job of researching the theological argument behind the King’s divorce. It’s difficult for Margaret and her children to regain the power and influence they believe is due to them as Plantagenets without making themselves appear a direct threat to the Tudor throne. But unlike her cousin Elizabeth in The White Princess, Margaret is portrayed here as a very capable woman with strength, dignity and spirit. I did sometimes find her annoying, though, especially every time she showed such blatant favouritism to her youngest son, Geoffrey, who did nothing to deserve it as far as I could tell.

I still had a few problems with the book – one of them being Gregory’s insistence on referring to every character by his or her full name, title and relationship to the narrator almost every time they appear in the text. Would a mother having a private conversation with her son really address him as “Son Montague”? Is this really necessary when Montague (Henry Pole) is one of the main characters in the story? We’re not likely to forget that he is Margaret’s son, after all. I also thought the book felt much longer than it really needed to be; some of the scenes started to feel quite repetitive.

I haven’t mentioned the ‘curse’ of the title yet, but I can tell you that it refers to the curse Elizabeth of York and her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, supposedly placed on the Tudor line in the previous novel. The subject of the curse is raised every time a child or heir to the throne dies, but I was pleased to see that it never becomes a major part of the plot. In her author’s note at the end of the book, Gregory offers a scientific alternative to the curse, which I found interesting.

On the whole, then, I found this to be one of the better Cousins’ War novels. It was also the perfect way to end the series, tying in with her previous series of Tudor novels. Now I’m wondering which period of history Philippa Gregory will turn to next.

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!