HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Joan of Arc and The Great Pity of the Land of France’ by Moya Longstaffe

Joan of Arc’s life and death mark a turning point in the destiny both of France and England and the history of their monarchies. ‘It is a great shame,’ wrote Étienne Pasquier in the late sixteenth century, ‘for no one ever came to the help of France so opportunely and with such success as that girl, and never was the memory of a woman so torn to shreds.’

Biographers have crossed swords furiously about her inspiration, each according to the personal conviction of the writer. As Moya Longstaffe points out: ‘She has been claimed as an icon by zealous combatants of every shade of opinion, clericals, anticlericals, nationalists, republicans, socialists, conspiracy theorists, feminists, yesterday’s communists, today’s Front National, everyone with a need for a figurehead. As George Bernard Shaw said, in the prologue to his play, “The question raised by Joan’s burning is a burning question still.”’

By returning to the original sources and employing her expertise in languages, the author brings La Pucelle alive and does not duck the most difficult question: was she deluded, unbalanced, fraudulent ‒ or indeed a great visionary, to be compared to Catherine of Siena or Francis of Assisi?

cover and blurb via amazon

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Everyone has heard of Joan of Arc, the girl dressed as a man, who heard godly voices telling her to run an army. But ask for more, the where, when and why, then the story becomes murkier. So a comprehensive book on Joan is perfect for anyone.

Joan, or Jeanette, was a woman, so naturally has been written in a less than ideal light throughout time. A saint, a lunatic, a heretic, a liar, witch, a leader. Poor Joan has been labelled it all. But who is Joan of Arc?

The book starts off with the detail of the country of Joan’s birth. ‘The Great Pity of the Land of France’ was the phrase, the pity being the sorry state of the country and the suffering of its people. First came civil war between the leaders of Orleans and Burgundy in the early 1400’s, before the English then  invaded France, with the massive battles of Harfleur, Agincourt and Rouen with King Henry V in 1415-1419. France was on its knees – a crazed leader, a dead dauphin, a ragged army and struggles for the people. Battles between France and England through the Hundred Years’ War, ending in 1453, is explained through this book, to give clarity to the life and situation that gave rise to such a heroine.

The book delves into Joan’s early life, the family who raised her, and what made her believe she was called by God to save her country. Joan of Arc was no great-sized warrior. An average girl of average height, her hair cut short like a soldier, the clothes of a soldier. Joan was not the first French woman to ride into battle but none before her had the qualities of young Joan. With God on her side, Joan was a unique figure. She set out from her home in Domrémy, where she had seen visions of  Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret from the age of 13. Leaving home at about 16 in 1428, Joan believed she had to drive the English out of France, and bring the King Charles to Reims where he would be crowned. Joan travelled to Vaucouleurs and petitioned an army commander with her tales of divine intervention. Joan told the men of tales of battle at Rouvray days before word spread to the area about the battle, convincing the army of her visions. What began was an extraordinary change in favour for the French army.

Joan was sent to meet with King Charles in 1429, age 17. Joan was sent on a relief mission to Orleans, all in donated armour, to be a message of hope to battling soldiers losing to the English. Some say Joan fought in battles, others say she merely sat in on military meetings and planning. Either way, for a young woman, any involvement is extraordinary for the time. But soon after Joan’s arrival, the French beat back the English, took Reims after other successful battles, and Joan’s family were ennobled. Her presence, her visions, her tales changed the war.

A year on and a truce with England collapsed and Joan was again at war and captured by Burgundy. She jumped from a tower up to 21 metres high to escape and had to be moved to a secure location. Then Joan was put on trial for heresy, a classic move when an enemy wanted to bring someone down. The English and the Burgundians wanted Joan gone. Not only guilty of heresy by claiming to hear saints, Joan was charged with cross-dressing, something only hated after she was caught. As a soldier, Joan was welcome to dress as a man, for necessity. Her male outfit also saved her chastity, and as soon as she was forced into a dress, an English lord attempted to rape her, allowing her back into male clothing.

The religious court lacked honesty or jurisdiction, and the English and Burgundians won out. Joan was found guilty of her charges, the penalty death at the stake. Joan was burned 30 May 1431 in Vieux-Marché in Rouen, and then her charred body was pulled from the ash and burned twice more to ensure her death. Both French King Charles and English boy-King Henry continued to claim hold over France, and the war carried on. It was not until 1452 did poor Joan get a retrial, ending in an innocent verdict in 1456, just as the wars finally ended in France’s favour.

I have to confess I did not know the detail of Joan of Arc’s life, so this book was of great interest. Someone interested in Joan may know all the facts as they are already known, but to me, the book is a treasure trove of detail on a great woman of history. Congratulations to the author for the wide research and careful construction of this great heroine.

 

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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr’ by Leanda de Lisle

From the New York Times bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the tragic story of Charles I, his warrior queen, Britain’s civil wars and the trial for his life.
Less than forty years after England’s golden age under Elizabeth I, the country was at war with itself. Split between loyalty to the Crown or to Parliament, war raged on English soil. The English Civil War would set family against family, friend against friend, and its casualties were immense–a greater proportion of the population died than in World War I.
At the head of the disintegrating kingdom was King Charles I. In this vivid portrait–informed by previously unseen manuscripts, including royal correspondence between the king and his queen–Leanda de Lisle depicts a man who was principled and brave, but fatally blinkered.
Charles never understood his own subjects or court intrigue. At the heart of the drama were the Janus-faced cousins who befriended and betrayed him–Henry Holland, his peacocking servant whose brother, the New England colonialist Robert Warwick, engineered the king’s fall; and Lucy Carlisle, the magnetic ‘last Boleyn girl’ and faithless favorite of Charles’s maligned and fearless queen.
The tragedy of Charles I was that he fell not as a consequence of vice or wickedness, but of his human flaws and misjudgments. The White King is a story for our times, of populist politicians and religious war, of manipulative media and the reshaping of nations. For Charles it ended on the scaffold, condemned as a traitor and murderer, yet lauded also as a martyr, his reign destined to sow the seeds of democracy in Britain and the New World.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I don’t know much about Charles I; he is not in my time period of “expertise”, but since de Lisle is such a good author, I thought it was time to extend my knowledge. A quick internet search of Charles I tells of a somewhat brutal and foolish guy, where things all went wrong around him. But this book doesn’t tell that story. Charles was a man who took his duty as king most seriously, his kingship and his religion were held to the highest of esteem, he cared about his people and honour was his greatest value to maintain.

Charles I was a Protestant man, yet was not harsh on Catholics like rulers before him. It come have been Charles’ lack of will that caused him trouble. His relationship with Archbishop Laud made Charles’ subjects believe he was a Catholic sympathiser, when in fact, his Protestant beliefs were firm in his heart. When the French princess, Henrietta-Marie, a  Catholic, was chosen as queen, these rumours only grew worse.

While the book talks of a man worthy of being king, Charles’ personality did not automatically translate into him being a good leader. He liked to compromise – to the point where he would be on the losing side, but also could be stubborn and refuse to give in when it was in England’s best interest. Charles, ultimately, was a stiff and difficult king, and seemed to want to be seen as a strong leader while still also a protector. Yet it was his stubbornness that would be remembered, as inflexibility caused his people harm.

Married to French Henrietta-Marie, it has been said that Charles was dominated by this woman. Yet that is a combination of male historians and old attitudes assuming any woman with a will and an opinion must be a domineering wench. Henrietta-Marie was a smart woman, trained to be a queen. Perhaps things would have gone differently had Charles listened to his wife more often. The author uses letters which have not been used before, to show what the royal marriage was like, and showed that this prime political match had sense of love to it also. Charles’ mother-in-law was the powerful Marie de Medici, the Dowager Queen of France. Marie was considered the human body of the counter-reformation, a strong Catholic firmly against Protestantism, only to have her daughter marry Charles, leader of Protestant England. Charles and Henrietta-Marie would have had the most fraught and lively marriage one could imagine.

There were figures in Charles’ life which I had never heard of – the Rich brothers. Henry,  1st Earl of Holland, and Robert, 3rd Earl of Warwick, stood in Charles’ way as he looked for the funds to start a war, as decided upon in parliament. Charles needed to protect Protestant needs throughout Europe as the Catholics fought back more than in previous generations. Also rearing its head was Oliver Cromwell’s desire for civil war and to rule in the monarchy’s place. Between the Rich brothers and their cousin named Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle, they rose in power as Charles did his fumbling best to save his true religion and his country.

Of course, that genocidal killer, Oliver Cromwell, was doing is best to embrace an England without a monarchy, and after civil wars, poor Charles I was captured and beheaded for high treason in 1649, after 24 years as king. After plenty more fighting, and England spending a decade free of a monarchy, Charles’ son, also Charles, took the throne in his place. How much easier English history would be if Catholic and Protestant factions could just co-exist, even if just within the confines of the royal line!

While I know little about the time period of Charles I, I enjoyed this book, as de Lisle is a wonderful author, creating another book that is fun to read while laced with information you can trust and enjoy. All books by Leanda de Lisle are a must-buy.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen’ by Giles Tremlett

In 1474, a twenty-three year old woman ascended the throne of Castile, the largest and strongest kingdom in Spain. Ahead of her lay the considerable challenge not only of being a young, female ruler in an overwhelmingly male-dominated world, but also of reforming a major European kingdom that was riddled with crime, corruption, and violent political factionism. Her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon was crucial to her success, bringing together as it did two kingdoms, but it was a royal partnership in which Isabella more than held her own. Her pivotal reign was long and transformative, uniting Spain and laying the foundations not just of modern Spain, but of the one of the world’s greatest empires.
With authority and flair, acclaimed historian Giles Tremlett relates the story of this legendary, if controversial, first initiate in a small club of great European queens that includes Elizabeth I of England, Russia’s Catherine the Great, and Britain’s Queen Victoria.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I love Giles Tremlett’s work so I was greatly looking forward to this book. Isabella of Castile is 600 pages of history, kindly broken up into a timeline of an extraordinary life. Isabella is a well-known figure, and so there are persistent stereotypes of her character, ranging from a vicious religiously-driven invader, to courageous and fierce woman, to powerful and saintly queen.The kingdom of Castile had seen its fair share of powerful queens in its time, with varying results, so when Isabella stepped up to rule, not as a regent wife, but on her own, things were bound to get hectic and history, always written by men, has varied in its narrative.

The book opens with Isabella’s early life in the court of her much older half-brother, Enrique IV. Both Enrique and their father, Juan II, were not great rulers, so Castile was in chaos, and Enrique had ruled the same as his father – weak and easily influenced by others. So, when Enrique died, there was little in the way of support for Isabella, either from royalty, wealthy land-owning grandees or the church to support a female ruler. But Isabella was determined to rule, and rule on her own terms, becoming a fierce leader that would be remembered for all time.

Europe was ready to emerge from the middle ages. Plague was wiping out so many people, so many that the illness was contributing to the feudal system collapsing. Ottoman rulers were conquering and Castile was hoping for Christianity to be their great saviour in a difficult time. The land known as Spain today was filled with Christians, Muslims and Jews, and the notion of a stable mix was a pipe dream.

Even before Isabella was a queen, she was a princess with a plan. There are writings of romance between her and the princely heir of Aragon named Ferdinand, Spain’s other great Christian power. But Isabella married with a pragmatic approach, and relished in the display of her bloodstained bed sheets after the wedding. People hated Enrique and his new rules; Isabella was a traditionalist. While Isabella and Ferdinand were planning their alliance while producing heirs, another Spaniard named Rodrigo Borgia was trying to get onto the papal throne, an ally to Enrique. Spain’s kingdoms were in turmoil on levels often ignored in the story of Isabella’s life.

Isabella politely grieved her awful brother when Enrique died in 1474, and Isabella, in her magnificent walled city of Segovia, was officially made the queen in her own right. It was not long before Ferdinand became king in Aragon. Many thought Ferdinand could not rule his kingdom as well as his wife’s, and she was not capable of doing so alone. Only months after their crownings, war came to the southern areas, which Isabella was able to command on her own. Yet Isabella also found time to bear a son and heir to two kingdoms in 1478. Isabella and Ferdinand had much to control over an enormous area and were making their mark in doing so.

The book delves deep into the southern wars before Isabella and Ferdinand conquered Granada in 1492, exiling the Muslims from Al-Andaluz and creating (approximately) the Spain we know today. Then came the Spanish Inquisition to expel all the Jews, the Muslims who had been forced to convert, and Columbus’ missions to what was the Americas rather than Asia. Isabella gave birth to five children, and suffered the event of the death of her eldest son and heir, Juan, in 1497, meaning Juana (yes, the mad one) was the ruler of Castile, Aragon and Al-Andaluz, now all one nation. Juan’s pregnant wife miscarried the precious child which would have inherited. Isabella had seven children, but one was a stillborn son early on, and another loss of was a twin sister to another daughter who survived. Two of Isabella’s daughters, first Isabella then Maria, married the King of Portugal, and Catherine famously married Arthur Tudor as the century changed. Isabella died of illness in 1504, after enduring a number of years suffering from personal loss.

Isabella was a powerful ruler, understood the limitations of her gender (by their standards), had her name blackened by historians and Italian haters, and was pious yet vicious with her Inquisition. She raged when her husband strayed – frequently – and took no lovers of her own. Isabella’s story is all about power, and she was truly worthy of the opportunity to rule. Thank you to Tremlett for putting all of Isabella’s story together, not just the well-known parts. No part of any book written by this author will disappoint.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Richard, Duke of York’ by Matthew Lewis

Richard, 3rd Duke of York is frequently used to recall the colours of the rainbow with the mnemonic ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’, wrongly believed to be the Grand Old Duke of York who had 10,000 men, or mistaken for his youngest son, Richard III. The son of a traitor, he inherited a dukedom aged four, became the wealthiest man in England at thirteen and later rebelled against his king, and if he is remembered, it is as a man who ignited the Wars of the Roses. Further eclipsed by two of his sons, who would become the mighty warrior Edward IV and the recently rediscovered Richard III, he is an ancestor of the Tudor monarchs and fifteenth great-grandfather to Queen Elizabeth II, yet the man himself is obscured from view. Matthew Lewis pushes aside the veils of myth and legend to challenge the image of Richard as a man whose insatiable ambition dragged a nation into civil war, revealing a complex family man with unparalleled power and responsibilities. The first person ever recorded to use the Plantagenet name, he pushed the political establishment to its limits, dared to fight back and was forced to do the unimaginable.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I was looking forward to this book for a number of reasons – firstly, because it’s Matthew Lewis, and also because Richard, Duke of York, really was kinda sorta the right person to be king if you dig through the family tree. This book didn’t disappoint at all.

Henry VI was in power, a man who was king as an infant, and England first had to go through a period ruled by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Gloucester, before Henry VI, a meek boy and then weak man, took over. Henry VI got himself a bride who was smart, strong and up to something with the Duke of Somerset. French lands in English hands were lost before Henry VI had a chance to rule them, and England was going to hell. (No offence, H6, it wasn’t really your fault).

Richard Plantagenet was a descendant of Edward III, like pretty much everyone in the War of the Roses. Through his mother, Richard was related to Edward II’s son Lionel Duke of Clarence, and through his father, Richard was related to Edward III’s son Edmund Duke of York. Edward III had five sons and three daughters who survived to adulthood (eight sons, five daughters in total, yikes!), and Richard Plantagenet was a descendant of surviving sons number two and four. As King Richard II, son of Edward The Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III, died without children, Lionel’s descendants were supposed to inherit (Richard’s mother’s family line, the Mortimers).

But the Lancaster branch took over. Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt – the Lancaster line, usurped the throne from Richard II, led by Gaunt’s son Henry IV, leading to Henry V and Henry VI. But the Mortimer/York branches, now joined in marriage, thought they deserved the crown. And by right they did.

Richard Plantagenet sought to claim his right, resulting in the War of the Roses, killing off all the direct male descendants of Edward III, more or less. It was bloody, it was awful and needless and could be confusing if not for great books like this one. Richard had a solid claim to the throne, but Henry VI also had a claim, and was an anointed king. Richard Plantagenet is portrayed as a greedy, bloodthirsty man who tried to steal the throne, when it was essentially stolen from him by his own relatives years ago. Richard’s own father was beheaded for trying to assert the same right. Richard’s head too ended up on a spike, and his son Edmund was killed with him.

But two of Richards’ three remaining sons went on to be kings – Edward IV and Richard III (they killed their other brother, long story). Richard may have been killed in 1460, but his seven surviving children all continued to fight as Yorks against the Lancasters for the right to the throne, ending with Richard’s granddaughter Elizabeth, who married Lancastrian Henry VII and became queen, ending the wars for good.

A huge thanks to Matthew Lewis for this book, giving Richard Plantagenet a book of his own to show him as more than a usurper who got what he deserved. The Yorks had every right, just as Richard believed.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Owen Tudor’ by Terry Breverton

For generations, the ancestors of Welshmen Owen Tudor had fought Romans, Irish Picts, Vikings, Saxons, Mercians and Normans. His uncles had been executed in the Glyndwr Welsh War of Independence, his father pardoned, but his estates stripped from him. Owen’s now landless father took him to London to try and find employment, and Owen fought for Henry V in France. He entered the service of Henry’s queen, Catherine of Valois, and soon after the king’s death he secretly married her, the mother of the eight-month-old Henry VI. Owen and Catherine would have two boys together, hidden from the world and the boy-king Henry VI by the Bishops of London and Ely. Henry VI would go on to ennoble them as Edmund Earl of Richmond, and Jasper Earl of Pembroke, but upon Catherine’s death Owen was imprisoned. Escaping twice, Owen was thrown into the beginnings of the Wars of the Roses with his two sons. Edmund died in Wales, and Jasper became the only lord who fought throughout the civil wars until his nephew, Edmund’s son Henry Tudor, was established on the English throne as Henry VII. When Jasper led the Lancastrian forces at Mortimer’s Cross in 1461, the aging Owen led a wing of the defeated army, was captured and executed. Without the secret marriage for love, there would have been no Tudor dynasty.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I have to admit I had only read fiction about Owen Tudor until I picked up this book. The author has written a bountiful amount of Tudor works, so before reading the books on Jasper Tudor and Henry VII, I decided to start with Owen Tudor.

Tudor was, of course, a Welshman, from a family fraught after the Welsh Independence wars. Tudor, born Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur, left for England for a new start. Tudor got a job, working for Queen Katherine de Valois, the bride Henry V took from France in return for peace. While Shakespeare wrote of Henry’s love for Katherine, all he did was basically purchase her, get her pregnant and then die. Katherine was left in England with a tiny baby who was king at nine months old, and all alone.

But all was not lost. Katherine had fallen in love with Owen Tudor, who had been working in her household on behalf of the king’s steward. Katherine and Tudor secretly married, and had up to six children – two sons who survived, Edmund and Jasper, plus Edward and Margaret ( who may or may not have entered the church and died young), and possibly two more, unknown, who did not survive (it’s a murky situation. For an author researching, a bit of  nightmare really). Sadly, Katherine passed away in 1437, aged only 35, leaving her kingly son in the Lord Protector’s hands and Tudor with the boys. Tudor was lucky not to be imprisoned or worse for secretly marrying a queen, as a law was in place that she could not marry without the king’s permission. There was no proof Katherine and Tudor ever legally married, and could have been nullified anyway. Tudor had all his possessions and lands seized but did keep his head and children.

Once Henry VI grew up a little, he treated his half-brothers well and kept Tudor on a good salary. Poor Tudor however was captured in Hereford during the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461 when his son Jasper’s army was defeated. Tudor was beheaded, his last words about Katherine. The bastard son he had fathered two years earlier had a headstone placed on his father’s grave years later.

Owen Tudor must be a hard man to write about, as he was not born royal and has a murky history, along with his family, given the lack of evidence about his life. What we do know is that Edmund died, leaving a pregnant Margaret Beaufort behind, who had Henry VII, and of course, had his bloodline through the royals ever since. I am definitely going to read the other books written by Terry Breverton.