Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier by Charles Spencer

Prince Rupert As someone who prefers to learn through fiction, I often struggle to find the motivation to start reading a long non-fiction book, especially one by an author I’ve never tried before. I’ve had this one on my Kindle since last year waiting until it was the right time to read it – and that time came a couple of weeks ago after I read The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge, a novel in which one of the main characters fights alongside Prince Rupert in the English Civil War. Rupert has a relatively minor role in that novel, and in others that I’ve read, but I thought it would be interesting to find out more about him.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, as he is usually known, was born in Prague in 1619. His mother, Elizabeth, was the sister of King Charles I of England, while his father, Frederick, was the Elector Palatine and – briefly – the King of Bohemia. When Frederick lost his crown to the Habsburg Emperor, his wife and young children were forced to flee Prague and take refuge in The Hague. Growing up in exile, Rupert gained military experience in the Thirty Years War before coming to England and joining his uncle, Charles I, at the beginning of the Civil War.

As the commander of the Royalist cavalry, Rupert was one of the most colourful characters of the Civil War. When most of us think of a ‘cavalier’ we probably form a mental image of someone very like Prince Rupert: young, tall and handsome, with long, flowing hair and dressed in the latest court fashions. To the Parliamentarians, however, the cavaliers were villains, guilty of theft, rape, drunkenness and all sorts of debauchery. As the most iconic of the cavaliers, and the King’s most famous general, Rupert was the main target of enemy propaganda – he was even accused of witchcraft and his beloved white poodle, Boye, was suspected of being his familiar.

Rupert Earlier in the conflict, Rupert led the Royalists to some impressive victories, before suffering defeats at Marston Moor and Naseby. While Charles Spencer’s portrayal of Rupert is generally very favourable, I do think he does a good job here of showing why the Royalist cause ultimately failed and why rivalries and divisions between Rupert and his fellow commanders, as well as some very poor decisions, contributed to their downfall. Spencer does seem to like and admire Rupert (which must be an advantage when writing historical biography) but at the same time, he is aware of Rupert’s negative points and not just his positive ones.

The Civil War years only take up about a third of the book, but Prince Rupert’s military career continued after his part in the war ended. After being banished from England in 1646, he became a Royalist pirate, attacking Parliament’s shipping in the Caribbean. Then, following the Restoration of his cousin, Charles II, in 1660, he returned to England and fought in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars as a senior naval commander. Both of these episodes of the Prince’s life are given a lot of attention in this book, as are his final years (he died in 1682).

I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating biography – Charles Spencer’s writing is clear and easy to follow, and I even found the descriptions of battle tactics and military strategies compelling, which is unusual for me! The only time I thought it began to drag a little bit was during the naval sections (I always seem to struggle with books set at sea, which I accept is usually my fault rather than the authors’).

What I found particularly interesting was the information on Rupert’s other accomplishments away from his army and navy career: his scientific work and the part he played in the founding of the Royal Society; his role in the development of the mezzotint printing technique; and his governorship of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Rupert’s Land in Canada was named after him). I wasn’t aware of any of this and hadn’t appreciated just how much Prince Rupert had achieved in his lifetime.

I would be happy to read more non-fiction by Charles Spencer but I’m not sure that any of his other books really appeal to me. He is the younger brother of the late Princess Diana (something I didn’t know when I first started reading) and most of his work seems to be concerned with his family history. If anyone has read any other books on Prince Rupert, though – either fiction or non-fiction – I would love some suggestions.

The Renaissance: The Best One-Hour History by Robert Freeman

The Renaissance I spotted this book on Netgalley towards the end of last year and as I’ve been trying to read more historical non-fiction recently, I requested it immediately. It has taken until now for me to get round to reading it, which I feel guilty about as it really did only take an hour to read from beginning to end!

This book is part of a series of One Hour History books each dealing with a different historical period or theme. Other titles include The Protestant Reformation, The French Revolution and The Vietnam War, with more to come soon. This particular volume covers the period of history we know as the Renaissance.

Freeman begins by explaining how factors such as the decline of the feudal system following the Black Death, the fall of Constantinople which led to Greek scholars returning to other parts of Europe, and the decline in the influence of the Catholic Church marked the transition from the ‘Dark Ages’ into the Renaissance. Next he looks at Renaissance art (paintings, sculptures and examples of architecture) and developments in other areas including religion, printing, exploration and medicine. Finally, there’s a timeline showing the dates of significant events.

The author suggests googling the names of the paintings and sculptures discussed in the book so that you can look at them as you read. Most of these works of art were already familiar to me (Freeman chooses to focus on famous pieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is understandable, as this book is only intended to give a concise overview) and may be familiar to you too, but I would still recommend searching for the images to look at while you read what Freeman has to say about perspective, light and shadow and other techniques.

This very short book is obviously not intended for people who already have an in-depth understanding of the Renaissance (and it would probably not be very satisfying for those readers) but for anyone with little or no knowledge this is an ideal introduction. After reading it you may decide that you now know as much as you want to know about the Renaissance, but it could also be used as a good starting point for a deeper study of the period – although it’s disappointing that there is no list of suggestions for further reading.

This was not what I would describe as a particularly fun or entertaining book to read – with so much history to get through in so few pages there’s no time for anything but the basic facts – but it was an interesting and educational way to spend an hour of my time.

Review copy received via Netgalley.

The Tudors: A Very Short Introduction by John Guy

The Tudors Just a short post today to discuss a very short book!

The Tudors: A Very Short Introduction is part of a series of books which offer, as the title suggests, a very short introduction to a wide variety of different topics. Looking at the list of other titles available (and there are hundreds of them) you can choose from subjects as diverse as Folk Music, Feminism or Contemporary Art; Chinese Literature, Biblical Archaeology or American Politics. This one is devoted to the Tudors although, admittedly, I probably didn’t really need a short introduction to them, having recently read Peter Ackroyd’s much longer book on the same subject! I had the opportunity to receive a review copy, though, and was curious to see what the series was like.

In this book, historian John Guy takes us through the reigns of each Tudor monarch – Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I. All of the basic facts are here, presented in a format that is easy to follow and understand. There are also some illustrations, genealogical tables, a chronology and a list of suggested further reading. As I already have quite a good knowledge of the Tudor period, very little of the information in this book was new to me, but for those readers who don’t know much about the Tudors this will be an excellent starting point.

While this was not as interesting or compelling as Ackroyd’s book (and I know it’s not fair to compare the two as they are clearly aimed at different readers and have different purposes) I did enjoy reading this Very Short Introduction and would consider trying another one. As well as being short (just over 100 pages), these books are also very small and would be the perfect size to take with you on a train or bus journey or to fit into a bag or pocket so that you could dip into it when you have a few spare moments to read. And if you don’t feel like actually reading it from cover to cover, it would be a good reference book to keep on your shelf for times when you might want to quickly look up some dates or facts.

You can find a full list of all the Very Short Introductions on the Oxford University Press website.

The Women of the Cousins’ War by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones

The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother is a non-fiction companion book to Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of historical fiction novels. The series tells the story of the Wars of the Roses from the viewpoints of some of the women who were involved, including Jacquetta of Luxembourg, her daughter Elizabeth Woodville, who was married to Edward IV, and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Their stories were told in The Lady of the Rivers, The White Queen and The Red Queen respectively. The Women of the Cousins’ War features an essay on all three of these women, each written by a different historian, and in addition to the essays we are given some family trees, maps, list of battles, illustrations and colour photographs.

The book begins with a long introduction written by Philippa Gregory, which I actually found as interesting to read as the rest of the book! The introduction discusses the possible reasons why women in history have often been ignored and overlooked, and why it’s important to study the roles they played. Gregory also looks at the differences between writing history and writing historical fiction, and as a lover of historical fiction myself I find it fascinating to read about an author’s reasons for writing it.

The introduction is followed by Gregory’s essay on the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Unfortunately very little is known about Jacquetta, there are no existing biographies and apparently there are only a few occasions where she actually appears in historical records, so Gregory didn’t have a lot of information to give us. For most of the essay she can only guess at what Jacquetta may or may not have done and how she probably reacted to the historical events going on around her. However, this was the essay I enjoyed the most and it was as easy to read as Gregory’s fiction. It sounds as if Jacquetta had a fascinating life and it’s a shame that so few historians have taken the time to study her.

The second essay is written by the historian David Baldwin and looks at Elizabeth Woodville. I did find Baldwin’s writing style slightly dry, but Elizabeth Woodville is a historical figure who interests me, so I still enjoyed reading the essay. The book’s final section is written by Michael Jones and examines the life of Margaret Beaufort. Again, there’s not a huge amount known about Margaret, but I thought Jones did a good job of working with what little information is available. He also spends some time discussing Margaret’s family history to help us understand the background she came from and to build up a more complete picture of the sort of person she was.

This book could be read either as a stand-alone non-fiction/reference book or as an accompaniment to Philippa Gregory’s three Cousins’ War novels. I’m not sure how satisfying it would be for a serious historian or history student though, as there are no footnotes or endnotes and only some brief lists of sources. I should point out that I have never studied the Wars of the Roses in any depth (most of what I know about the period comes from the small number of historical fiction novels I’ve read set during that time) and for the general reader like myself I would say that the book is very accessible and easy to follow. It filled some of the gaps in my knowledge and I thought it was worth reading, particularly for the wonderful introduction!

I received a copy of this book for review from Simon & Schuster

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

As you may have noticed, I don’t often read non-fiction (a big clue can be found in my blog name) but this is something I’d like to change. I have heard a lot of praise for Claire Tomalin’s biographies, so I had high hopes for this one.

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self is a long and comprehensive biography of an important historical figure, most famous for the diaries he kept during the 17th century. I haven’t actually read the diaries of Samuel Pepys yet but would certainly like to read them at some point in the future. I wasn’t sure whether not having read the diaries would cause problems with my understanding of the biography, but luckily it didn’t seem to matter – in fact, it might actually be best to read the biography first as it helps to put the diaries in context.

The first few chapters deal with Pepys’ childhood and early life (pre-diary) and understandably we don’t have a lot of information regarding this period of his life – we can only speculate about what Pepys may or may not have done. I found these chapters quite boring in comparison to the rest of the book, although I did enjoy learning about a typical day in a 17th century school – and I was fascinated by the description of the operation Pepys had to remove a stone from his bladder. I’ve always had an interest in the history of medicine and it never ceases to amaze me how anybody ever survived at all!

Tomalin explains that what makes Pepys’ diary so interesting and noteworthy is that he records a mixture of both public events and personal experiences. Pepys lived through a fascinating and eventful period of English history and his famous diary covers such events as the Restoration of Charles II, the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. I was slightly disappointed that more attention wasn’t given to the plague as it’s a topic I find fascinating to read about (I hope that doesn’t sound too morbid!) but as Tomalin explains it was something that didn’t affect Pepys personally and so he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about it.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were the descriptions of daily life. While I confess to struggling to get through some of the chapters about Pepys’ political and business activities, I found the more personal sections completely gripping. I thought Tomalin stayed very objective throughout the biography, drawing attention to both the good and the bad aspects of Pepys’ character (and to be honest, he didn’t seem to be the most pleasant of people). But I can tell that even though Tomalin doesn’t shy away from discussing his negative points, she has a lot of enthusiasm and liking for her subject. She also fleshes out the characters of other important people in Pepys’ life including his wife Elizabeth, with whom he had a very complex and volatile relationship. He could be very cruel to her and both physically and verbally abusive, but they did appear to have some genuine affection for each other and Tomalin describes some of the happy times they had together as well as the bad.

For someone like myself who doesn’t often read this type of literary biography, this was quite a challenging book but worth the effort. If I had tried to read this book straight through from beginning to end I probably wouldn’t have managed to finish it, but reading it over the course of a month, a few chapters at a time between reading my usual fiction books, worked perfectly for me.

Have you read any of Claire Tomalin’s biographies? Which ones would you recommend?

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Inspector Alan Grant is in hospital recovering from a broken leg. In an attempt to alleviate his boredom, his friend Marta encourages him to investigate an unsolved mystery from his hospital bed. When she brings Grant a picture of Richard III, he’s immediately intrigued. Richard, of course, is widely believed to have murdered his two young nephews, the sons of his brother King Edward IV, to secure his own claim to the throne after Edward’s death. Grant, however, is not convinced. How can this kind, sensitive face belong to one of the most notorious murderers of all time? Over the next few weeks, Grant reads everything he can find about Richard and his alleged crimes, and makes some surprising discoveries about this controversial king.

With my interest in the Plantagenets, the Wars of the Roses, and Richard III in particular, I expected to enjoy this book and I did. It doesn’t compare to Sharon Kay Penman’s wonderful The Sunne in Splendour, which I read last year, but then, it’s a completely different type of book.

Much as I happen to agree with Josephine Tey that Richard has been unfairly treated, this book is obviously very biased in his favour. But the argument she makes for Richard’s innocence is certainly very convincing. She shows how Grant takes one source at a time, looks at who wrote it (often one of Richard’s enemies) and what the writer’s motive could have been in discrediting Richard. The book also considers Richard’s possible motives and what reasons he may have had for committing (or not committing) the crimes of which he was accused.

As Alan Grant, at the beginning of the novel, knows very little about Richard III it means that the reader doesn’t need to have a lot of prior knowledge either and can learn along with Grant. In fact, from reading other reviews it seems that for many people this book has been their first introduction to this period of history. If, like me, you’ve already read one or two books about Richard and have some basic knowledge of the subject, The Daughter of Time is still a fascinating read. I was surprised that the Duke of Buckingham was hardly mentioned, as he is usually considered along with Richard and Henry Tudor to be one of the main suspects for the murder of the two princes. Tey also suggests that the princes were still alive when Henry VII took the throne, which is interesting as the general opinion now seems to be that they died during Richard’s reign.

But whether we agree with Tey’s theories or not isn’t really important. What is important is that we’re aware of the unreliability of many historical sources and how we have to be very careful because something that is now considered to be ‘historical fact’ may actually originate from nothing more than lies or rumours.

Booking Through Thursday: History

Here’s this week’s question from Booking Through Thursday.

Given the choice, which do you prefer? Real history? Or historical fiction? (Assume, for the purposes of this discussion that they are equally well-written and engaging.)

Historical fiction is my favourite genre of book. If I’m reading real, factual history (even when it’s well-written) I sometimes find it boring, whereas historical fiction helps to bring the past to life in an entertaining, enjoyable way. I often find I learn a lot about historical events through reading fiction. However, it’s important to remember that it is fiction and not necessarily 100% accurate.

I very rarely read non-fiction, so if anyone would like to recommend some well-written and engaging history books it would be very much appreciated.

What about you? Do you prefer real history or historical fiction?