HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: “Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles” by Josephine Wilkinson

Louis XIV’s story has all the ingredients of a Dumas classic: legendary beginnings, beguiling women, court intrigue, a mysterious prisoner in an iron mask, lavish court entertainments, the scandal of a mistress who was immersed in the dark arts, and a central character who is handsome and romantic, but with a frighteningly dark side to his character.

Louis believed himself to be semidivine. His self-identification as the Sun King, which was reflected in iconography of the sun god, Apollo, influenced every aspect of Louis’s life: his political philosophy, his wars, and his relationships with courtiers and subjects.

As a military strategist, Louis’s capacity was debatable, but he was an astute politician who led his country to the heights of sophistication and power – and then had the misfortune to live long enough to see it all crumble away. As the sun began to set upon this most glorious of reigns, it brought a gathering darkness filled with the anguish of dead heirs, threatened borders, and a populace that was dangerously dependent upon – but greatly distanced from – its king.

Cover and blurb via Amberley

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I will be honest; when I received a copy of this book, I was taking on a subject in which I knew zero… literally nothing. My French court history extends of Catherine Medici and…. that’s it. Versailles is gorgeous, and there’s recently been a tv series by that name (didn’t watch, never a good place to start accuracy wise) and Louis was the king who put the man in the iron mask… right?  But Josephine Wilkinson has proven to me multiple times she produces quality books, so I dived in to learn about the French.

Little Louis was born in 1638, a miracle gift from God, as his parents had suffered so many stillbirths before they got their heir, and the little dauphin took the crown at age four, ruled by a council instead of Queen Anne. It was great to learn about a royal heir who had a good relationship with his mother, how they were close and affectionate, instead of being raised by strangers. Louis also grew up with governesses and a tutor which formed a close group around the boy, giving him friendship a budding king would be grateful to have. With his mother at his side, Louis was king as she negotiated the end of the Thirty Years’ War and fostered a fixation that ruling was a divine absolute right of Louis’.

By 13, Louis was old enough to rule himself and took on financial changes in the court. While he was in love with a girl, he was supposed to marry his cousin Mary Theresa, which he did in 1660, age 22. His cousin was the daughter to King Felipe of Spain, who was freshly dead, and Louis never got a dowry paid to him, giving Louis an excuse  to invade the Spanish Netherlands. This was a love Louis continued with – war. Over the years, Loius invaded and battled in all directions for his country, always believing he was doing the right thing. The French court about Louis was a vivid mixture of friends, ministers and lovers, all brought together by Dr. Wilkinson.

The book suggests Louis took his role as a king very seriously; he considered him an absolute ruler and France was in his hands. Over his 72 years as king, Louis managed his huge country, and an almost impossible amount of foreign policy and the origins of French colonies around the world. Louis was an absolute monarch, ruling France with total power, while extending France’s influence in every direction.

Everyone knows of the beauty of Versailles, the sun, and all of France would orbit around their Sun King. I had details coming at me in all directions while reading this book, a whole new area for me to explore. Married for 23 years to Maria Theresa, they had six children, only one making it to adulthood. However, Louis had countless mistresses and well over a dozen illegitimate children, though a few handfuls of them were legitimised as they grew. Louis took a second wife, Françoise d’Aubigné, and either he got too old, or he really cared for this woman far inferior to him, as he managed to curb the mistress habit.

I cannot say if this is a good biography for an expert on the subject, but as a beginner, I feel like this book is a great place to begin. There are so many people in this great cast of characters over the 72 years of Louis’ reign and total transformation of France. Direct descendants are still walking around today, spread into major European families, cementing Louis’ place in history.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: “Anna, Duchess of Cleves” by Heather R. Darsie

Anna was the ‘last woman standing’ of Henry VIII’s wives ‒ and the only one buried in Westminster Abbey. How did she manage it?

Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’ looks at Anna from a new perspective, as a woman from the Holy Roman Empire and not as a woman living almost by accident in England. Starting with what Anna’s life as a child and young woman was like, the author describes the climate of the Cleves court, and the achievements of Anna’s siblings. It looks at the political issues on the Continent that transformed Anna’s native land of Cleves ‒ notably the court of Anna’s brother-in-law, and its influence on Lutheranism ‒ and Anna’s blighted marriage. Finally, Heather Darsie explores ways in which Anna influenced her step-daughters Elizabeth and Mary, and the evidence of their good relationships with her.

Was the Duchess Anna in fact a political refugee, supported by Henry VIII? Was she a role model for Elizabeth I? Why was the marriage doomed from the outset? By returning to the primary sources and visiting archives and museums all over Europe (the author is fluent in German, and proficient in French and Spanish) a very different figure emerges to the ‘Flanders Mare’.

Cover and blurb via Amberley

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There is a piece of fiction out right now, which suggests that Henry VIII was right, Anna of Cleves was no virgin. I will not be reviewing that work, as I only publish five-star reviews, and leave the rest in privacy. Instead, I am here to show you THE book on Anna of Cleves, a piece of written beauty.

Anna of Cleves starts out with a look at Anna’s childhood, her family, its history, and life in Germany at the time. The book has researched German life and child-rearing for those in Anna’s rich position. No music, dancing and sewing days for Anna – girls were taught by women to learn finance, in order to run a home worth of a duchy. Yes, Anna could sew, with her fine embroidery and needlework on clothing, but could also read, write, understand money and German customs, values and politics. While all that is great, Anna learnt a German way of life, and the German language, one of her original problems in England.

The book tells us of Anna’s early life, rather than only focusing on her once she was purchased as a queen. The Cleves Court was an intriguing place, with a wholly different look at politics and customs of the time period. Without giving away spoilers, the stark difference between Germany and England shows just how much Anna had to go through upon her marriage and carefully negotiated life.

Germany, of course, was in the process of the Reformation, leaning Protestant, just how my personal beloved Thomas Cromwell wanted for England. Between the changes of Germany and the power still held by the Holy Roman Empire at the time, Anna marrying into England would have massive repercussions, and as someone who had to write the death of Thomas Cromwell, the book was an immense eye-opener on how Anna of Cleves’ marriage brought down England’s greatest minister of all time.  The situation was never as simple as Henry thinking Anna was ugly. No spoilers, but damn!!!

Anna of Cleves is an extraordinary woman. She managed to survive an annulment from Henry after only a few months (and didn’t have to sleep with him), and became the king’s ‘sister.’ Anna made friends with the grandest of women in England, Henry’s daughters Lady Mary and Lady Elizabeth, and also the exciting Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. Anna managed all this in England, living a longer life than any other Henry wife, but never had to let go of who she was.  It has been a long time since I found a book with so much new information; we just needed to wait for Darsie to deliver such brilliance. History has relegated Anna to a role of being the ugly foreign wife Cromwell brought to England. A woman so repulsive Henry became impotent (though, come on, none of us ever believed that was her fault). A woman married for an alliance not wanted or needed, and disposed of for a pretty teenager. Anna was beautiful, educated, kind, clever and resourceful. Thank you for this wonderful book!

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: “The Mythology of the Princes in the Tower” by John Ashdown-Hill

 

When did the term ‘Princes in the Tower’ come into usage, who invented it, and to whom did it refer? To the general public the term is synonymous with the supposedly murdered boy King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, sons of Edward IV. But were those boys genuinely held against their will in the Tower? Would their mother, Elizabeth Widville, have  released her son Richard from sanctuary with her if she believed she would be putting his life in danger?

The children of Edward IV were declared bastards in 1483 and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was offered the throne. But after Bosworth, in order to marry their sister Elizabeth of York, Henry VII needed to make her legitimate again. If the boys were alive at that time then Edward V would once again have become the rightful king.

Following the discovery of some bones in the Tower in 1674 they were interred in a marble urn in Westminster Abbey as the remains of the two sons of Edward IV. What evidence exists, or existed at the time, to prove these indeed were the remains of two 15th-century male children? What did the 1933 urn opening reveal?

John Ashdown-Hill is uniquely placed to answer these questions. By working with geneticists and scientists, and exploring the mtDNA haplogroup of the living all-female-line collateral descendant of the brothers, he questions the orthodoxy and strips away the myths. New revelations about one of the most enduring, most popular stories in British history, which will provoke controversy and generate huge interest in the media.

Cover and blurb via Amberley

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We all know the stories of the Princes in the Tower, so why another book? Because we can’t get enough! DUH! This book isn’t about the princes and their deaths or survival (read Matthew Lewis’ The Survival of the Princes of the Tower for that), rather about how DNA could at least clear Richard III’s name.

It’s only been a few years since we all put in a few £££ and dug up our dear Richard III, but his name is still mud when it comes to the Princes in the Tower (thanks, Shakespeare!). But DNA analysis came in helpful in the discovery of Richard III, and maybe now we could use it on the Princes in the the Tower too.

The Princes’ bones are in an urn in Westminster Abbey, or at least the bones of two children found roughly where they thought the dead princes would be. If the bones could be tested for their DNA and matched with a living relative, the bones’ identity would be secure. There is now a direct relative, as this book tells us, when Glen Moran studied the genealogy in 2017 to discover opera star Elizabeth Roberts is directly linked to the Princes’ grandmother.

This book focuses on how we can clear Richard’s name. Perhaps Richard did have them killed, or maybe they never died at all. If the DNA testing of the urn bones does not match, it means those princes went on to live longer than Richard himself.

The book goes on to talk about the burial of Perkin Warcbeck, who famously believed himself to be Prince Richard of York. Warbeck was buried at the London Dutch Church, which was bombed in WWII. For the rebuild, the skeletons in the church were cremated and container-stacked. But perhaps Warbeck’s body remains in the ground, as it is now believed that not all bodies were uncovered. This book talks more on how Warbeck can/should be tested against Elizabeth Roberts.

But there is more. The books tells us about a possible skeleton of Prince Edward at Chelsea Old Church, a possible Prince Richard at St Mary’s Chruch in Kent, and even a possible Prince Richard in Belgium’s Mechelen Cathedral (a whole story in itself). Now that Elizabeth Roberts has been found, all of these possibilities open up the final resting place of the boys, and Richard’s innocence.

No book can answer the great questions, not until Westminster Abbey relents on DNA testing, likewise the bodies at other churches. But with the discovery of a relative, the path is getting ever clearer.

RIP John Ashdown-Hill

(PS just because Richard didn’t kill those boys doesn’t mean Margaret Beaufort is the killer either. What is with the constant blackening of her name? UGH)

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: “The Five” by Hallie Rubenhold

Five devastating human stories and a dark and moving portrait of Victorian London—the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper.

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden, and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women.

For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that “the Ripper” preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time—but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.

Cover and blurb via Amazon

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I read my first Ripper book as a teen, some twenty years ago, and had to lock it in my parents’ back shed, as the photos of Mary Jane Kelly were so disgusting. But every book on the subject is the same – lurid sexual innuendo, infinite bloody detail, the cunning of a killer, oh, who could he be?

This book answers who Jack the Ripper really was – he was no one. No one. A weak man preying on the weak. This book gives us the information we really need – who the victims were, where they started, what went wrong, and how they ended up alone in the dark in Whitechapel.

Women are beaten and/or killed and then discarded every day. Prostitutes? No one even bats an eyelid, they are just a thing, not a real person. Did no one ever find it odd that these victims were older women, not your typical prostitute trope? Did no one ever bother to check if these all women were prostitutes, or if that fact was simply a note written down by a policeman in 1888, who wouldn’t have cared either way?

We have been fed books on Jack the Ripper for years, all using the same so-called facts, same accounts, same coroner observations, same eyewitness stories. Rather than relying those details, which have been proven as unreliable, lacking, vague or just sloppy, Rubenhold has gone back further, and found a jam-packed history of these women’s lives, far from what happened the night they died. Their lives, their realities, their struggles. The strict and cruel reality of having to have a man in your life, whether you wanted one or not. The reality of alcohol destroying lives and families. The reality being young and brutalised, and needing to start all over again. In Mary Jane Kelly’s case, the reality of being young and pretty, and ending up as a prostitute to greedy and unforgiving men. All of the victims grew up away from the misery of Whitechapel, but forced into the slum due to the misfortune of being single or a discarded wife.

Was Jack the Ripper a doctor? Royalty? A lunatic, a butcher, a rich gentleman? He was just another man who hated women and took out his rage on whoever he could. These five women were vulnerable and alone, and a pathetic man chose to kill them while they were alone. Five women, who didn’t even get the chance to fight for their lives, were not murdered by some hero, but by someone who could barely call themselves human. How the Ripper could be considered interesting is so puzzling. These five women have complex and heartbreaking stories thanks to Rubenhold, a wonderful palate cleanser after years of books salivating about sex and murder.

This book will show you that society hasn’t moved on as much as we like to think, and the hatred spewed towards the author for writing about the victims instead of a weak and lazy killer is a sad indictment indeed.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 142: 80th Anniversary of the Final Offensive 26 March – 1 April 1939

March 26

General Yagüe and his troops advance north and east from the Sierra Morena mountains, on the Andalusia/Castilla La Mancha border. Any remaining Republican soldiers in the country are ordered to drop their weapons and retreat from any remaining front-lines. Nothing can be done to stop the Nationalists now. In a single day, the Nationalist troops take 200,000 square kilometres of land and take 30,000 Republican prisoners. Escobar Huerta surrenders the city of Ciudad Real to Yagüe inside an old casino, and is then shipped off to be executed.

March 27

General Solchaga’s Navarre Corps, General Garcia Valiño’s Army of Maestrazgo, and General Gambara’s Italian troops are ordered to take the city of Toledo, which has spent much of the war on the front-line, and just 70 kilometres from Madrid. The city suffers unconditional surrender and prisoners are quickly captured. Anyone Republican must be swiftly rounded up.

Troops head from Toledo to Madrid

March 28

Republic Colonel Prada officially surrenders Madrid to the Nationalists, who have had the city surrounded for almost three years, and the Nationalists are able to enter the city without a fight. All remaining leaders of the Republicans who are in Madrid flee to Valencia in the hope of escape, including General Casado, who had been trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender with Franco.

Troops mingle with locals as they enter Madrid

March 29

The Nationalists now hold the main centre of Jaén, some 90 kilometres north  of Granada, and have also marched 250 kilometres southeast of Madrid to Albacete and Cuenca, so most of Castilla La Mancha is now occupied. The port town of Sagunto, just 30 kilometres north of Valencia city, is occupied, leaving Republicans refugees almost nowhere else to go.

March 29

The ports of Valencia, Gandia, Alicante and Cartagena are still in Republican hands, and 50,000 Republican refugees are stranded along the coast, without any Republican navy to aid them from the coming onslaught. British and French ships in the regions cannot take refugees, as their governments have recognised Franco’s control over Spain. Hundreds of Spaniards rich enough to bribe foreign ship captains are able to escape, General Casado included.

Refugees wait in Alicante

March 30

The Nationalists take Valencia, marking the final demise of the Republican effort to save their country. Gambara’s Italian troops take Alicante and its port, taking 15,000 refugees prisoner at the port. Gambara is prepared to allow political refugees to leave the country, but the Nationalists shall not allow it. At the port in Alicante, refugees start committing suicide in huge numbers, to avoid the Nationalists, who are only one day away from arriving.

The British Stanbrook leaving Alicante with rich refugees, bound for Algeria.

March 31

After taking the regions of Almeria, Murcia and Cartagena in the far south-east, all of Spain is now under Nationalist occupation. All remaining refugees in Spain are huddled in Alicante port, hoping their chance to be evacuated will still come. The Nationalist troops arrive, and the refugees are slowly lined up to be taken prisoner. But there are 20,000 terrified people, and they have to suspend capturing people until the next day, giving more the chance to commit suicide at the port before being taken away. The suicide toll runs into the hundreds.

April 1

Generalissimo Francisco Franco broadcasts what will be his last radio message of the war:

Today, after having disarmed and captured the Red Army, the Nationalist troops have secured their final military objective. The war is ended. Burgos, April 1, 1939. Year of Victory.

As of April 1, only the Soviet Union does not already recognise Franco’s government. Franco already has a new Non-Aggression Pact with Portugal and a treaty of friendship with Germany, leaving Spain to be neutral in WWII, while they recover from civil war. Within a week, Franco backs the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan to denounce Communism. German and Italian troops leave by June 1939, in preparation for the coming European war.

The Final Offensive saw 150,000 Republic soldiers and civilian rounded up in the concentration camps, bringing the total of Republic prisoners in April 1939 to upwards of 500,000. Within just several years, over 50,000 will have already been executed. 

Franco celebrates in Madrid

After three years of bloody battles, of murder, rape, pillaging, looting, of destruction of cities, towns, communities, ways of life, ideals, and families, evil emerges the winner. All sides of political spectrum have fought, the rich against the poor, the workers against those desperate to hold onto the monarchy, religion, and landowning feudal rulers, everyone and everything has been pitted against one another for a horror show of gore and misery. Approximately one million people are dead, murdered by people of their own country. From the sprawling rural plains to the ancient cities, everything has been reduced to nothing, every way of life hacked to pieces. Civilians have been herded and lined up to be executed, women raped until they died and left sprawled in the dirt. Bodies of nuns were dug up and displayed, family members ripped from their homes in the dead of night and shot in ditches, their families still to scared to speak up eighty years later.

Nationalist victory parade in San Sebastian

While April 1st marks the end of the Spanish Civil War, the war didn’t end for many. Franco’s first decree was to ensure all Republicans would suffer for their choices. More than 1000 concentration camps were erected in Spain, holding people well into the 1950’s. Many didn’t survive the camps. How many people died between 1939 and 1975 isn’t known, but one estimate is almost one million. Fascism and staunch Catholicism wormed its way into every part of Spanish life, its people silenced as Franco systemically destroyed everyone who hated him. Right up until Franco died, he signed death warrants, a miserable old bastard who got to die warm in his bed.

With WWII starting just a few months after Spain was brought down, Franco and what he did has been largely ignored, by history and anyone not directly affected. Franco couldn’t have won the war without Hitler and Mussolini, whose European exploits shot memories of their fascist cruelty into the hearts and minds of everyone, unforgettable despotic hatred. Franco allowed the Germans and Italians to aid him, and they used Spain as their own practice killing fields, testing new methods of warfare, such as carpet bombing, testing men and artillery, preparing for the fight to take Europe. Countries such as the UK and France sat idly by, hoping to avert a European war by doing nothing, when they could have potentially stopped Germany, Italy and Spain before the Nazis took over. But not the UK, France, nor any other country in the Non-Intervention Committee bothered to help, countries overrun by Germany soon after. The Germans and Italians assumed the UK would quickly intervene when the war started, and  were surprised that nothing happened in retaliation. The US was as unhelpful in the Spanish Civil War as it was in the first two years of WWII. The only people desperate to stop all this were the Spanish Republicans, and the thousands of individuals who risked their lives to find their own way to Spain to help. Many never made it home, many who did were punished for their bravery.

I will do a separate post as to the fates of the main players of the war on both sides, as well as the struggles faced by the people in their home cities and towns in the aftermath. I will also post about the ongoing discovery of ‘disappeared’ Spaniards still being reburied, the fates of the refugees who walked into France, and what happened to the International Brigades. I will also do a post on the many sources I have used for these three years of postings.

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the week’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.