Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

Elizabeth of York Elizabeth of York’s story is a fascinating one. As the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (the alternate spelling of Wydeville is used in this book), Elizabeth lived during one of the most turbulent periods of English history, the Wars of the Roses. She was the sister of the two young princes who it is believed may have been murdered in the Tower of London, she married the first Tudor king, Henry VII, who defeated her uncle Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, and she was also mother to another king, Henry VIII. Despite all of this, Elizabeth is not usually given as much attention as other figures of the period. This new biography, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, explores Elizabeth’s life and her historical significance.

Alison Weir is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction. Although I have read one of her novels, Innocent Traitor, this is the first of her biographies I’ve read and I was very impressed. The book is written in a style that I found engaging and easy to read but it’s also a very thorough, long and detailed account of Elizabeth’s life. An incredible amount of research must have gone into the writing of this book and it contains an absolute wealth of information…I read it on my Kindle and was constantly bookmarking interesting facts and passages.

As well as taking us, in chronological order, through Elizabeth’s entire life from her birth to her death and its aftermath, we are also given lots of details on the social history of the period and what life was like for people who lived during that time: what they ate and drank, the clothes they wore, and the way children were treated and expected to behave. There are lists of dishes served at banquets, descriptions of the duties of ladies-in-waiting and even an appendix giving a full description of every known portrait of Elizabeth. Sometimes there’s too much detail (I didn’t really feel the need to know the names of the nurses of each of Elizabeth’s younger sisters, for example, and the lists of her privy purse expenses and all the gifts she bought and received were a bit overwhelming) but it all helps to build up a full and vivid picture of Elizabeth’s world.

Less is known about Elizabeth than other Tudor figures, so there are times when the focus of the book switches to important political events, conspiracies and other things taking place in the wider world, rather than on Elizabeth herself. The only drawback here is that with so few primary sources remaining to give us information on Elizabeth’s life, Weir can only assume what Elizabeth may have thought or how she felt. This is not really the author’s fault but it would have been interesting to know Elizabeth’s true thoughts on some of these issues, such as the pretenders to the throne who appeared during Henry VII’s reign claiming to be Elizabeth’s lost brothers.

Much as I enjoyed this book, I did have a problem with the portrayal of Richard III. I was aware before I started reading that Alison Weir has a negative opinion of Richard and believes him guilty of all the crimes that he has been accused of, but I still thought there was too much speculation and personal bias in her discussions of him. In the absence of any real evidence, we are told that ‘maybe Elizabeth hated him’ and ‘maybe Cecily was furious with him’, for example. These are not really historical facts, are they? The opinions of other authors and historians who take a more sympathetic view of Richard are dismissed as ‘wishful theories evolved by revisionists’. Anyway, this is just a small criticism of what is otherwise a wonderfully entertaining and informative book. For anyone interested in learning more about this important but often forgotten Tudor queen and her world, I would highly recommend reading Elizabeth of York. It really is a fascinating period of history and Elizabeth deserves to be remembered!

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

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.

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!

Philippa Carr’s Daughters of England, Volumes 1-3

The Daughters of England Philippa Carr is one of the pseudonyms of the author also known as Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and others. As Victoria Holt she wrote gothic romance/suspense novels, as Jean Plaidy she wrote more serious historical fiction and it seems that her Philippa Carr books are somewhere between the two. The Daughters of England is a long series of twenty novels following successive generations of one family from the sixteenth century to the twentieth, where the narrator of each book is the daughter of the narrator from the previous one. The series was originally published between 1972 and 1995 but has now been released in ebook format by Open Road Media and I received the first three volumes from the publisher through Netgalley in the form of a 3-in-1 book, which is why I’ve waited until I’ve finished all three before writing my review.

The Miracle at St Bruno’s is where it all begins. Our narrator is Damask Farland, the daughter of a rich lawyer, who grows up in Tudor England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Queen Mary I, a time of political and religious change. The story revolves around Damask’s relationship with Bruno, a boy from the neighbouring St Bruno’s Abbey who believes he must be a miracle child because he was found as a baby in the Abbey’s Christmas crib.

This was a good introduction to the series and an excellent portrayal of what life was like during this time period. While Damask and her family may have been secure and prosperous during the reign of one monarch, as soon as the next one came to the throne with his or her different religious views, their safety was no longer guaranteed. I did find the plot very predictable and could see every ‘surprising’ revelation and dramatic twist coming a mile away, but maybe I’ve just read too many of this type of book!

Book Two, The Lion Triumphant, is the story of Damask’s daughter, Cat Kingsman, and is an exciting historical adventure novel. The setting this time is Elizabethan England and with the country preparing to defend itself against the Spanish Armada, England’s brave sailors are the heroes of the day. One of these sailors, Jake Pennlyon, captain of the Rampant Lion, is determined to make Cat his wife. Cat does everything in her power to convince him that she will never marry him, but when she is captured and taken aboard a Spanish galleon bound for Tenerife she finds herself at the mercy of Don Felipe, the Governor of the Canary Islands, who has sworn revenge against Jake and the woman he loves.

This was a great story and my favourite of the three books, though I actually felt guilty for enjoying it so much because the ‘hero’ is such a violent, arrogant man. Despite the female protagonists and the focus on history from a woman’s perspective, these really aren’t good books from a feminist point of view. Even by sixteenth century standards I’m not sure Jake’s behaviour (and Colum Casvellyn’s in the next volume) would have been considered acceptable! Still, at least Jake does have some redeeming qualities, unlike Colum…

The third book in the series, The Witch from the Sea, is narrated by Cat’s daughter, Linnet. With the Armada defeated and the Elizabethan era coming to an end, Linnet’s father is planning to set up a trading company with a friend, Fennimore Landor. It is expected that Linnet will marry Fennimore…until the night she is abducted by local squire Colum Casvellyn. Colum is a character who makes Jake Pennlyon seem like a saint, yet Linnet is attracted to him and eventually agrees to marry him.

Settling into Colum’s home, Castle Paling in Cornwall, Linnet gradually discovers exactly how her husband has made his fortune and is horrified by what she learns. Life at the castle becomes even more difficult for Linnet after a beautiful woman is found shipwrecked on the shore nearby and becomes part of the household. It will be left to Linnet’s daughter, Tamsyn, to solve the mysteries of Castle Paling and uncover the truth about the ‘witch from the sea’.

This book has a darker, more gothic feel than the first two, with descriptions of the castle and its haunted towers, shipwrecks, ghost stories, and the mysterious Halloween appearances and disappearances of the ‘witch’ Maria. It’s also a sad story at times, as we have to say goodbye to some of the characters who have been around for two or three books. Not as good as The Lion Triumphant, but I still enjoyed this one.

My verdict on the Daughters of England series:

These books will be too melodramatic and romance-based to appeal to everyone (especially if you can’t deal with the chauvinistic male characters and the way the women react to them), but I found them to be interesting, entertaining historical fiction novels and there’s no doubt that Philippa Carr has a good knowledge of the time periods she is writing about. While all three of these books focus on fictional characters and their personal stories, they have a strong historical background covering all the major events of the sixteenth and early seventeeth centuries. I had fun reading these three novels, particularly The Lion Triumphant, though I suspect I would probably have enjoyed them more when I was younger and just starting to get into historical fiction.

I would definitely like to continue with the series – but not immediately as even with their different settings the books do all seem to be very similar and reading three in such a short space of time was a bit too much for me. I’ll probably wait a while before picking up the fourth one, Saraband for Two Sisters.

Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Queen's Gambit So many novels have been written about the six wives of Henry VIII I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to read another one. Queen’s Gambit seemed to be getting such good reviews, though, so I thought I would give it a chance. I was intrigued by the comparisons to both Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, two very different authors, (though now that I’ve read it, I can tell you I found it more similar to the former than the latter) and I also liked the fact that, at least with this edition, the publisher has avoided the usual front cover image of a ‘headless/faceless woman in a pretty dress’ which most recent Tudor court novels seem to have.

Queen’s Gambit tells the story of Katherine Parr. If you’re familiar with the rhyme used to remember the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives (Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived), Katherine Parr was the sixth and final wife – the one who ‘survived’. While Katherine’s story may not have been covered in historical fiction as often as some of the other wives, particularly Anne Boleyn, I have read about her before so already knew the basic facts about her life.

Katherine comes to the court of Henry VIII after her husband Lord Latimer dies leaving her a widow for the second time at the age of thirty-one. Soon after her arrival, she falls in love with Thomas Seymour, one of the brothers of the late queen, Jane Seymour. However, Katherine has also caught the eye of the King, who plans to make her his sixth wife. By this stage of his life, Henry is no longer the handsome prince he once was: he has grown fat, he’s suffering from an ulcerated leg, and added to the fact that his previous wives have met such unhappy fates, Katherine has no desire to marry him. She doesn’t dare defy the King’s wishes and accepts his proposal of marriage, but during the years that follow she is unable to forget Thomas Seymour, even after he is sent away from court on a diplomatic mission. Meanwhile, life at court is growing increasingly dangerous for Katherine and as she becomes more deeply involved in the reformed religion she realises that she needs to be very careful if she’s going to survive.

This story is told from two very different perspectives: one is Katherine’s and the other is Dorothy Fownten’s. Katherine is a dignified, mature and intelligent person which makes her easy to like and sympathise with as she learns to cope with life in the treacherous, unpredictable Tudor court, never being sure who can and cannot be trusted, and knowing that two of her predecessors have already lost their heads. Dorothy, known as Dot, is Katherine’s maid and while Katherine moves in the innermost circles at court, Dot is on the outside and can take a more observant and unbiased view of things. I liked both women but I found Dot a more engaging character. Having read a few books about Katherine now, I don’t think she’s really a great subject for historical fiction – there are a lot of other queens’ lives that are much more dramatic and interesting to read about – so some of my favourite parts of the book were actually those that concentrated on Dot’s personal story rather than Katherine’s. When I read the author’s note at the end I was surprised to discover that there really was a maid of that name who served Katherine Parr, though the way she is portrayed in the book is largely fictional.

Another character I enjoyed reading about was Dr Robert Huicke, the King’s physician who becomes a good friend of Katherine’s. Through Huicke we also meet Nicholas Udall, the playwright most famous for writing one of the first English comedies, Ralph Roister Doister. Huicke’s relationship with Udall, as well as his friendship with Katherine, adds another interesting angle to the story.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I thought this book felt more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a Hilary Mantel and I don’t think the comparisons with Wolf Hall are justified, but I did still enjoy it. Queen’s Gambit is apparently the first in a Tudor trilogy – the second one will explore the lives of Lady Jane Grey’s two sisters, Catherine and Mary, and the third is going to be set in the Elizabethan court. I’m looking forward to reading both.

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

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour: The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

The Chalice Today I’m taking part in a blog tour for Nancy Bilyeau’s new novel, The Chalice. This is the second in a series of historical thrillers set in the Tudor period and featuring Joanna Stafford, a former novice nun. Last year I read the first book, The Crown, and since then have been eagerly awaiting more of Joanna’s adventures.

In the previous book, the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII meant that Joanna was forced to leave Dartford Priory before she had the opportunity to finish her period as a novice and become a full nun. It’s now 1538 and Joanna has had to rejoin the secular world where she is hoping to lead a peaceful life raising her cousin’s little boy, Arthur, and establishing her own tapestry business. But when she learns of a prophecy in which she plays an important role, she becomes caught up in a plot to overthrow the King and restore the Catholic religion in England.

Although this is the second Joanna Stafford book I don’t think it’s completely necessary to have read the previous novel before this one, but readers of The Crown will enjoy learning more about Joanna’s background and her past as both the daughter of one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies and as a novice Dominican nun. Joanna is a great narrator, so easy to like and to sympathise with as she struggles to reconcile all the different sides of her character: her faith and her religious beliefs, her loyalty to her friends and her powerful connections as a member of the Stafford family. As she learns more about the prophecy and the international plot surrounding it, she has some difficult choices to make. How should she interpret what she has heard? And once she has listened to the prophecy is it her responsibility to ensure it is fulfilled whatever the cost?

Because Joanna is a Stafford and the niece of the late Duke of Buckingham, it’s believable that despite the life she has tried to choose for herself, she will inevitably come into contact with rich and powerful people, both close to the King and in opposition to him. In these dangerous times, filled with political intrigue and rebellion, Joanna (and the reader) is never quite sure who can and cannot be trusted, and this adds a lot of drama and suspense to Joanna’s story. Among the real historical people she encounters are her cousins Henry and Gertrude Courtenay (the Marquess and Marchioness of Exeter), the young Catherine Howard, and her old adversary Stephen Gardiner. She also meets the nun and prophet Sister Elizabeth Barton and a few other fascinating historical figures who I won’t name here so as not to spoil the surprise.

Joanna’s two love interests from The Crown are back again too – the former friar, Brother Edmund Somerville, and the constable, Geoffrey Scovill – and her relationships with both of these men are developed further in this book. I do enjoy Joanna’s interactions with Edmund and Geoffrey, who are both great characters, but the romantic aspect of the book never becomes too dominant and is well balanced by the mystery/thriller aspects.

Another area in which I think Nancy Bilyeau really excels is in the way she captures the atmosphere of Tudor England, with all its sights, sounds and smells. She also does a good job of portraying the political and religious tensions of the period, especially what it was like for the nuns and monks whose religious houses had been destroyed or closed down and who were now facing the difficulties of either building a new life for themselves or secretly trying to continue to lead their religious lives in any way they can.

I did find this book a bit confusing at first because unlike the previous book, in which Joanna’s mission was clear – to search for the legendary crown of Athelstan – this time I found it harder to follow what was happening and exactly what Joanna was expected to do. Once I got into the story, though, and the plot began to take shape, it had all the excitement and the page turning qualities I remembered from The Crown. I hope there will be more Joanna Stafford books, but if not I will still be looking forward to any future novels from Nancy Bilyeau.

The Chalice Tour Banner FINAL

I am the first stop on this blog tour – for more reviews, interviews, guest posts and giveaways see the tour schedule.

The Forgotten Queen by D.L. Bogdan

The Forgotten Queen Of all the royal women of the Tudor period, one we tend not to hear much about is Margaret, the elder sister of King Henry VIII and grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots. And yet Margaret was not only a princess of England, but she also became a queen at the age of thirteen when she married King James IV of Scotland. In this historical fiction novel aptly titled The Forgotten Queen, D.L. Bogdan tells Margaret Tudor’s story.

James IV is much older than Margaret and given that this was a marriage made for political reasons, she is fortunate that James proves to be a kind and gentle husband – although not a very faithful one. In time Margaret comes to love him and is devastated when he is killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Their young son succeeds to the throne and is crowned James V, but as he is not yet old enough to reign on his own, Scotland is ruled by a series of regents. Margaret marries again, this time to a man of her own choice, but as she learns more about her second husband – Archibald Douglas, the Earl of Angus – she begins to wonder if she has made a terrible mistake.

With her ties to both England and Scotland, it’s inevitable that eventually Margaret will have to choose between the country of her birth and her adopted country and must decide where her allegiances lie. It’s often unclear to the reader and even to Margaret herself what her true loyalties are, but the one thing that is obvious is that she wants whatever is best for the young James V, who is in a vulnerable position at the mercy of the various advisors, regents and noblemen who surround him. And while she fights to secure her son’s throne, Margaret never forgets her father Henry VII’s dream that through her Scotland and England could one day be united.

I knew absolutely nothing about Margaret Tudor before reading this book so, for me, she really is ‘the forgotten Queen’. It made a nice change to read a book set during the Tudor period that chooses to focus on somebody other than Henry VIII and his six wives and I did learn a lot about Margaret’s life. Unfortunately though, Margaret herself comes across as a very unsympathetic character: immature, selfish and stubborn. She makes some very bad decisions, often failing to take advice from other people, and she expects more from her friends than she is prepared to give in return. However, there were still times when I could feel some compassion for her, as she did seem to have a very difficult and tragic life. Only two of her children survived past infancy – James and her daughter with Angus, Margaret Douglas – and her second and third marriages were both very unhappy (although having said that, I felt that Margaret did nothing to make them any happier).

In addition to learning about Margaret’s life I enjoyed learning more about this period of Scottish history in general, for example the aftermath of Flodden, but I found the author’s attempt at handling Scottish dialect very irritating. To indicate that a character is Scottish she substitutes the words ‘dinna’ and ‘canna’ for don’t and can’t but doesn’t make any real effort to use any other Scottish words. This made the dialogue feel very unconvincing and artificial. Also, as the book covers such a long period of time, it would have been helpful if dates had been provided in the chapter headings or whenever the story jumps forward by a few years. It was hard to tell how much time had passed between one chapter and the next, or sometimes even between one paragraph and the next. Just a small thing but it would have made the story so much easier to follow!

This was a fairly light read, as you can probably tell from the title and cover. I think if I had been looking for a more in-depth book about Margaret Tudor I would have been disappointed, but as an introduction to her story it was enjoyable enough and has left me wanting to know more about this forgotten queen.