The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

At last! I bought this book shortly after its release in March 2020 with every intention of reading it then, but with the start of the pandemic and our first lockdown, I got distracted and had to put it aside until I was able to give it the attention it deserved. After that, there always seemed to be other books that needed to be read first or that seemed more immediately appealing, so The Mirror and the Light has been languishing on the shelf until I decided to put it on this year’s 20 Books of Summer list.

The Mirror and the Light is, of course, the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, completing the story begun in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. At almost 900 pages in my edition, it’s also the longest of the three books. It covers a relatively short period of time, from May 1536 to July 1540, which shows how much detail the book goes into. If you’re looking for a completely immersive reading experience, this is it – and for that reason, I would strongly recommend starting with the first book and reading the trilogy in order.

The novel opens in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s beheading. Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, has achieved what he set out to achieve – Anne, who has failed to give the king a male heir, is gone; the four men he believes to have insulted his old master and mentor, Thomas Wolsey, have also been executed; and Jane Seymour, formerly of Wolf Hall, has taken Anne’s place as Henry’s new queen. Cromwell, now Lord Privy Seal, has risen high in the king’s favour, but there is still more work to be done: there are foreign ambassadors to deal with, tensions between various court factions to navigate, conspiracies to stamp out, more marriages to arrange, and the moods of an increasingly temperamental and unpredictable Henry VIII to handle.

We servants of the king must get used to games we cannot win but fight to an exhausted draw, their rules unexplained. Our instructions are full of snares and traps, which mean as we gain we lose. We do not know how to proceed from minute to minute, yet somehow we do, and another night falls on us in Greenwich, at Hampton Court, at Whitehall.

Then, disaster strikes again. Jane Seymour dies, just days after giving birth to Henry’s long-awaited legitimate male heir. Cromwell will have to find yet another new wife for the king, but one mistake could give his rivals all the ammunition they need to bring about his downfall. History tells us what will happen next and Mantel follows the history very closely as she has done from the beginning; we know how the story will end and so there is no real suspense – but there is still plenty of tension and a sense of foreboding as things begin to go wrong for Cromwell and the book heads towards its inevitable conclusion.

This book is as exquisitely written as the previous two books in the trilogy, but of the three I think I enjoyed this one the least. I seem to have said this about a lot of books recently, but I don’t think it really needed to be quite so long. The middle book, Bring Up the Bodies, was the one that worked best for me, precisely because it was shorter and more tightly focused (on the demise of Anne Boleyn). The Mirror and the Light kept me gripped at the beginning and the end, but there were times in the middle when the pace felt so slow I found myself struggling to concentrate. Maybe Hilary Mantel couldn’t bear to say goodbye to Cromwell and wanted to delay the moment for as long as possible! If so, I don’t blame her because that moment when it comes is as moving and poignant as you would expect.

Although I was expecting Cromwell’s fall from grace, I was still surprised by how quickly and suddenly it happened. One minute we hear that he has been made Earl of Essex by the king, then literally just a few pages later he is being arrested and taken to the Tower of London. What makes it so sad is that Cromwell himself is not really surprised at all. He has known all along how precarious his position is at court in a world where life and death can depend on the whim of one man – Henry VIII, “the mirror and the light of all other kings and princes in Christendom”.

Now that I’ve finished this book, I’m looking forward to reading A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution novel.

This is book 15/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 44/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Six Tudor Queens: Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen by Alison Weir

Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series aims to retell, in fictional form, the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. This is the fifth book in the series so, as you would expect, the focus is on the fifth wife, Katheryn Howard. Having enjoyed the first three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – I had been slightly disappointed by the one on Anne of Cleves, but I’m pleased to say that I thought this latest book was a return to form.

When Henry VIII sets aside Anne of Cleves and takes nineteen-year-old Katheryn Howard as his next wife, he believes her to be pure, innocent and virtuous, qualities he values highly in a woman. Telling her she is his ‘rose without a thorn’, he is delighted with his young bride and looks forward to her producing another son to secure his lineage. But what Henry doesn’t know is that Katheryn has had more experience with men than he has been led to believe.

Katheryn is surprised to find that, despite the age difference, she is becoming genuinely fond of her obese and ailing husband. The man she really loves, however, is Thomas Culpeper, one of the King’s courtiers, whom she continues to meet in secret even knowing that if they are discovered both of their lives could be in danger. Then there’s Francis Dereham, with whom she was sexually involved before her marriage to the King; Francis won’t leave her alone, insisting that she had been pre-contracted to marry him before she ever met Henry, and Katheryn lives in fear of the King hearing of their relationship.

Of course, history tells us that Katheryn (as Alison Weir chooses to spell her name) will fail to keep her past a secret, that her love affairs with Dereham and Culpeper will become public knowledge and that she will face the same fate as her cousin, Anne Boleyn – but that doesn’t mean there is no tension in this retelling of her story. We know from the start that Katheryn is doomed and we have to watch her make one mistake after another, choose the wrong people to trust and head irreversibly down a path which will lead her to the scaffold. Despite knowing what will eventually happen, though, we are kept in suspense waiting for the moment when she will be betrayed and her secrets will be revealed to Henry.

The novel sticks closely to the known facts of Katheryn Howard’s life; although obviously there are some areas where Weir has to use her imagination or make decisions as to how certain things should be interpreted, she doesn’t seem to invent large chunks of the story as she did in Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets. I suppose Katheryn’s life is more well documented than Anne of Cleves’ and already dramatic enough without the need for too much invention.

Although Katheryn is frustratingly naive and reckless, I did have a lot of sympathy for her. A lot of time is spent discussing her early life before her marriage to Henry, when she lived in the household of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The household included several other young women who were also wards of the Duchess and it seems that there was very little supervision and discipline; Katheryn appears to have been easily influenced and sometimes even encouraged by the other girls to behave in a way that would have been seen as promiscuous in the 16th century. Because of the nature of Katheryn’s story, there is a lot of focus on her sex life and her liaisons with various men and this does become a little bit repetitive and tedious at times, but I still found it a more compelling read than the previous book in the series.

I am looking forward to the final novel, which isn’t available yet, but which I’m assuming will be about Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife.

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

This is book 8/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

This is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series which aims to retell in fictional form the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. I enjoyed the previous three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – but I was particularly looking forward to reading this one, on Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Before I began, all I really knew about Anne was that Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in arranging her marriage to Henry, that the King was disappointed when he saw her in the flesh as she didn’t live up to the Hans Holbein portrait he had seen, and that after their divorce she lived in comfort and was given the honour of being described as the King’s ‘beloved sister’. I knew there must be more to Anne’s story than this and I hoped to learn more about her from this new novel.

Alison Weir refers to Anne as Anna, so I will do the same for the rest of this post. She also uses the spelling Kleve rather than the Anglicised version, Cleves, and tells us that this should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘waver’. The duchy of Kleve, in what is now Germany, is the setting for the first section of the novel, which describes Anna’s life prior to her marriage. Her journey to England and brief time as Henry’s wife follows, and finally an account of the period after the divorce, taking us all the way through to her death in 1557 at the age of forty-one.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger

I’ve always considered Anna to be much luckier than most of Henry’s other wives: she wasn’t beheaded, she didn’t die in childbirth while providing the king with an heir, and unlike the other divorced wife, Katherine of Aragon, she was treated with respect and generosity (at least while the king still lived). Of course, this doesn’t mean that life was always easy for her – it can’t have been very nice, after all, to have to leave your family and friends behind and travel abroad to marry a man you’ve never met, only to be rejected by your bridegroom almost on first sight. As portrayed here by Alison Weir, she is a sensible, pleasant and good-natured woman and I did have a lot of sympathy for her, but her story is certainly less tragic and turbulent than some of the other wives’.

Bearing in mind that this is a novel with around 500 pages and that there isn’t really a lot of factual information available on Anna von Kleve, I felt that there was too much padding and at times I found the book quite tedious and repetitive. Because Weir takes us right up to the time of Anna’s death, towards the end of the book a lot of attention is given to the next two queens, Katheryn Howard and Catherine Parr, as well as various incidents and plots that took place during the reigns of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. Unfortunately, by this point Anna is living away from court on her various estates, so she has little personal involvement and most of these events are described from afar which made them less exciting to read about than they should have been.

To flesh out Anna’s story and make it more interesting, Weir has imagined a romance for her in Kleve before she marries the king and this has repercussions that affect the rest of her life. I won’t go into too much detail, but looking at other reviews of this book, some readers liked this imaginary storyline while others hated it. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility as Henry did allegedly tell people that he ‘doubted Anna’s virginity’, but that could have just been an excuse for not consummating the marriage and demanding a divorce. However, even if it was true, there is no evidence to suggest who her previous lover may have been, so this aspect of the novel is entirely fictional.

Although this is my least favourite book in the series so far, I have a copy of the next one, Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen, on my NetGalley shelf and am anticipating a more entertaining read – and hopefully, given Katheryn’s much more dramatic life, one that needs to rely less heavily on fiction.

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

Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor by Phil Carradice

As those of you who have been following my blog for a while will probably know, my favourite period of English history is the Wars of the Roses, the conflict that dominated the second half of the fifteenth century as the rival houses of York and Lancaster fought for control of the throne. The Wars of the Roses came to an end shortly after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, during which Richard III was killed and the victorious Henry Tudor came to the throne as Henry VII. In Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor, Phil Carradice looks at Henry’s life from childhood to death, but with a special focus on his journey to Bosworth Field.

Beginning with Henry’s birth at Pembroke Castle in Wales to Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor, Carradice goes on to give us an overview of the period, explaining how the throne changed hands several times between York and Lancaster and describing Henry’s fourteen years in exile under the protection of the Duke of Brittany. In 1485, with Richard III’s reign becoming increasingly troubled, Henry returned to Wales ready to launch his own claim to the English throne. His long march into England at the head of an army – a journey which took more than two weeks – where he would meet Richard on the battlefield at Bosworth, is the main subject of this book.

Carradice goes into a lot of detail on why the place usually described as the site of Henry’s landing in Wales may be incorrect and attempts to establish exactly where he did begin his journey. He then looks at some of the legends that surround the various stages of the march and whether they are likely to be true or not. He draws on primary sources such as The Ballad of Bosworth Field and the chronicles of Polydore Vergil, but also refers to the work of more recent historians and even includes some excerpts from his own interview with a man who decided to mark the 500th anniversary of Bosworth in 1985 by recreating Henry’s march. The one thing that was missing and would have really added to my enjoyment of the book was a map showing the route taken by Henry and his men; there was plenty of other additional material, such as photographs and illustrations, a bibliography and an index, so it’s disappointing that no map was included.

The account of the Battle of Bosworth itself was particularly well written and interesting, giving a good idea of how both Richard and Henry may have felt as they made their preparations and how each of their fates rested on winning the support of Thomas and William Stanley, who waited until the very last minute to enter the battle. The author makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies are with Henry and the Lancastrians rather than with Richard and the House of York – and he gives his reasons for his bias in the prologue at the beginning of the book. However, he does acknowledge some of Richard’s good points, such as his courage on the battlefield and his skill as a soldier, and in general I thought the book was quite fair and balanced – certainly not as biased as others that I’ve read.

As for accuracy, I noticed a few small errors such as a reference to the white rose of Lancaster and red rose of York (it’s the other way round, of course) but I’m sure these were silly mistakes rather than a lack of knowledge from the author. Overall, I found this an enjoyable and informative read; even though it’s a period I have read about many times before, I felt that I was learning new things from it – and I think it would be accessible for readers with little or no knowledge of the period too.

Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor is published by Pen & Sword Books as part of their ‘Following in the Footsteps’ series. The other books in the series explore the stories of Edward II, Oliver Cromwell and The Princes in the Tower. Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing me with a copy of this book for review.

Margaret Tudor by Melanie Clegg

Henry VIII’s sister Margaret is one of the lesser known Tudors and doesn’t usually get a lot of attention either in fiction or non-fiction, yet she was important historically as both an English princess and a queen of Scotland. This very enjoyable new biography by Melanie Clegg takes us through the whole of Margaret’s life from her birth in 1489 to her death in 1541, throwing some light on her childhood, her time as queen and her unhappy second and third marriages.

As the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Margaret had the sort of privileged childhood you would expect – perhaps more so than usual because Henry, not yet secure on his recently claimed throne, wanted to do everything he could to increase the rank and status of the new Tudor dynasty. Margaret grew up well aware of her own importance and value to her father in his efforts to arrange marriages for his children and form alliances with other royal families. In 1503, at the age of thirteen, Margaret was married to the thirty-year-old James IV of Scotland and made the long journey north while still in mourning for her mother, who had died earlier that year. It must have been a daunting experience for such a young girl, but James, despite already having several mistresses and illegitimate children, treated her with respect and kindness and helped her to settle into life in her new country.

Margaret was still just in her twenties when James was killed fighting the English at the battle of Flodden in 1513, leaving her to rule as regent for their young son who was crowned James V. She did not remain a widow for long, however, and soon married again, this time to a husband of her own choice, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, a move which angered the rest of the Scottish nobility and resulted in her losing the regency. The remainder of Margaret’s life was marked by political turmoil and personal tragedy – including the death of her younger son, divorce from Angus and an equally unhappy and unsuccessful third marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Methven.

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography. It is written in a clear and easy to read style and although it may not be academic enough for some readers (sources are just listed at the back of the book, for example, rather than being directly referenced in the text) for the general reader this is a good introduction to Margaret Tudor’s life and to this period of Scottish and English history. Melanie Clegg’s portrayal of Margaret feels quite fair and balanced, so that the reader feels some sympathy for her while also being aware of her flaws. There are parallels with the life of her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots (James V’s daughter), who also made some poor decisions when it came to choosing husbands!

Clegg shows how, in Margaret’s first few years in Scotland she has little interest in politics and government, but as time goes by she begins to grow in knowledge and experience. She is often torn between her adopted country and the country of her birth and does everything she can to bring about peace between Scotland and England, not always successfully. It can’t have been easy being the sister of a man like Henry VIII, after all (though maybe slightly preferable to being his wife). She should have been able to rely on him for support, especially after James is killed at Flodden, but instead he tries to make his own plans for Margaret and her children, aimed at uniting the two countries under one crown. Of course, this is what would eventually happen anyway, if not quite in the way Henry had hoped, through the marriage between Margaret’s granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots and grandson, Lord Darnley (son of Margaret’s daughter, Margaret Douglas) which resulted in the birth of the future James VI of Scotland and I of England.

I particularly enjoyed the second half of the book, which deals with the rivalries between the various factions of Scottish noblemen, the conflict between Margaret and the Duke of Albany (the next nearest in line to the throne) and her escape to England. The earlier chapters, although less dramatic, are interesting too and I loved the way James IV was portrayed. Staying in this fascinating period of history, I am looking forward to reading another new non-fiction book I have waiting on my TBR, The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J Coleman.

Thanks to Pen and Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen

The Boleyn King We all know what happened to Anne Boleyn: having failed to give Henry VIII the son and heir he needed, the King turned his attentions to Jane Seymour and Anne was beheaded, leaving behind her only child, the future Elizabeth I. But what if Anne had given birth to a living son? What if that son grew up to become King of England? Laura Andersen takes that idea as her starting point for The Boleyn King and weaves a whole alternative history around it.

At the beginning of the novel, King Henry IX, better known as William (the fictional son of Anne and Henry), is approaching his eighteenth birthday. His uncle, Lord Rochford, has been acting as Lord Protector for the last few years but William is now almost ready to begin ruling in his own right. Rochford is a clever, ruthless man and he has not done a bad job of ruling the kingdom, but as William prepares to take over there are still several problems and potential conflicts to be dealt with.

First, there’s the threat posed by the Lady Mary, William’s half-sister, who many of England’s Catholics would prefer to see on the throne. Then there’s the prospect of war with France. Most worrying of all for William is news of a document known as The Penitent’s Confession which claims to throw William’s paternity into doubt and which, if it falls into the wrong hands, could lose him his throne.

Amidst all of this drama and danger, there are only three people whom William feels he can trust: his other sister, Elizabeth, and two more fictional characters, Dominic Courtenay and Minuette Wyatt. Dominic is his best friend and William has come to rely on his honesty and advice, while Minuette, the daughter of one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies, has been raised as a royal ward and is very close to William. Elizabeth, Dominic and Minuette are the people William turns to for help in ensuring the security of the kingdom – and locating the Confession before his enemies find it first.

The Boleyn King is part alternate history, part mystery and part romance. It was the history part that I enjoyed the most; the book raises some fascinating questions and although these weren’t explored in a lot of depth, it’s still very intriguing to think about all the different ways in which just one small change (the birth of one boy) could affect the future of England, Europe and maybe even the entire world. If there really had been a Henry IX, that must mean there would have been no Edward VI. Does that also mean that Lady Jane Grey would never have briefly taken the throne and then lost her life and that Mary would never have become Queen either? What if Henry IX had children of his own? Would the outcomes of wars have been changed? What about the implications for religion, culture, art, literature and exploration? The possibilities are endless.

The mystery storyline, which begins with the death of a friend of Minuette’s and ends with the search for the hidden document, was quite enjoyable too, but the romantic aspect of the book was of less interest to me. Elizabeth, as she apparently was in real life, is in love with Robert Dudley, while both William and Dominic develop feelings for the same woman – who happens to be Minuette. Their love triangle is not resolved in this book but as this is the first in a trilogy, I expect it will continue to play a big part in the next two books.

There was a lot to like about The Boleyn King, but I did have one big problem with it. William, Elizabeth, Minuette and Dominic could have been modern day teenagers – they never felt to me like people who could really have lived during the Tudor era. The way they spoke, the way they thought and the way they behaved just wasn’t right and there was no real sense of the time period. When I read historical fiction I like to feel completely immersed in another time and place but that never happened with this book.

The next two in the trilogy are The Boleyn Deceit and The Boleyn Reckoning. While I would be interested to know how the story develops, I’m not sure if I enjoyed this book enough to want to read two more. Maybe I’ll change my mind if I come across them in the library but at the moment I’m not planning to continue.

The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The White Princess - Philippa Gregory The White Princess is the fifth book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series. The Cousins’ War is another name for the Wars of the Roses, a series of 15th century conflicts between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, two rival branches of the English royal family. This novel is set at the end of the period, just after Henry Tudor has defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and has been crowned Henry VII. Our narrator is Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York, a niece of Richard III and daughter of another former king, Edward IV. The novel takes us through the early years of Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry (an alliance which was supposed to unite the houses of York and Lancaster), the births of their children and the plots and conspiracies that troubled Henry’s reign.

The Wars of the Roses is a period filled with mysteries and controversies and every author or historian seems to have their own set of opinions and theories. The most intriguing of these mysteries is of course the question of what happened to Elizabeth of York’s two younger brothers who disappeared from the Tower of London never to be seen again. Were they murdered and if so who by? Or did one of them manage to escape? Henry VII was unable to prove that the two princes were dead, so the possibility that they could have survived gave rise to a series of Yorkist rebellions. In The White Princess we focus on one of these uprisings, centred around a pretender known as Perkin Warbeck who claims to be the younger of the princes, Richard, Duke of York. Is he really who he says he is and if so, must Elizabeth choose between her husband and her brother?

While I’m not a particularly big fan of Philippa Gregory’s writing and I think there are much better historical fiction authors out there (and much better Wars of the Roses novels – The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman is my top recommendation) I have quite enjoyed following this series and learning more about the women of the period. This one, though, was disappointing and the weakest of the series, in my opinion. It felt repetitive and unnecessarily long and I just didn’t find Elizabeth a very engaging narrator.

The story is based around two theories that you may or may not find plausible. The first is the idea that Elizabeth was in love with Richard III, her uncle, and that they were romantically involved. As far as I know, there is no historical evidence for this but Gregory is not the only author to have suggested it and I suppose it did add an extra layer to her portrayal of Elizabeth and Henry’s marriage. Then there’s the Perkin Warbeck story, which dominates the second half of the novel. I have read about Perkin Warbeck before and am familiar with the arguments for and against him being the lost prince; the theory Gregory describes here seems very unlikely to me, but this is fiction after all!

Something I think Philippa Gregory is very good at is making a complex period of history easy to understand. Even with no previous knowledge you would probably be able to follow what is happening in this novel without too many problems. Sometimes, though, I think she goes too far in her attempts to clarify things for the reader. For example, when Elizabeth is talking to her sister Cecily about their half brother she refers to him as “Thomas Grey, Mother’s boy” which just sounds silly, doesn’t it?

My biggest problem with this book, though, was the portrayal of the main characters. Elizabeth had such an interesting life and yet she comes across in The White Princess as boring. She doesn’t have the strength, intelligence and spirit of the other women who have been featured in the series – Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen), Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen), Jacquetta Woodville (The Lady of the Rivers) and even Anne Neville (The Kingmaker’s Daughter). The portrayal of Henry VII is very negative, which makes it difficult later in the book when we are expected to accept that Elizabeth is starting to love him. I don’t see how anyone could have loved the cruel, petty, vindictive Henry described in this book – especially after something he and his mother do to Elizabeth at the beginning of the novel, which I won’t go into here!

I think maybe I should have skipped this book and gone straight to the latest one, The King’s Curse, which sounds more intriguing and seems to be getting better reviews than this one. It’s about Margaret Pole, Elizabeth’s cousin, an historical figure I know nothing about. I’m looking forward to reading it eventually despite my problems with this one.

For more Wars of the Roses recommendations see My Journey Through Time: The Wars of the Roses and for more on Elizabeth of York and Henry VII see The Tudors – Part I.