HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Jane the Quene’ by Janet Wertman

All Jane Seymour wants is a husband; but when she catches the eye of a volatile king, she is pulled deep into the Tudor court’s realm of plot and intrigue….

England. 1535. Jane Seymour is 27 years old and increasingly desperate for the marriage that will provide her a real place in the world. She gets the perfect opportunity to shine when the court visits Wolf Hall, the Seymour ancestral manor. With new poise born from this event, it seems certain that her efficiency and diligence will shine through and finally attract a suitor.

Meanwhile, King Henry VIII is 45 and increasingly desperate for a son to secure his legacy. He left his first wife, a princess of Spain, changing his country’s religion in the process, to marry Anne Boleyn — but she too has failed to deliver the promised heir. As Henry begins to fear he is cursed, Jane Seymour’s honesty and innocence conjure redemption. Thomas Cromwell, an ambitious clerk who has built a career on strategically satisfying the King’s desires, sees in Jane the perfect vehicle to calm the political unrest that threatens the country: he engineers the plot that ends with Jane becoming the King’s third wife.Jane believes herself virtuous and her actions justified, but early miscarriages shake her confidence and hopes.

How can a woman who has done nothing wrong herself deal with the guilt of how she unseated her predecessor?

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Jane’s story begins in 1525, where at age 18 is still unmarried and becomes a maid of honour for mighty Katherine of Aragon. Jane is a quiet girl, keen to be part of the court instead of being a lowly spinster at home. But Jane’s tuition at court is placed in the hands of two other maids to the queen – Anne and Mary Boleyn. They are distant cousins to Jane, but quiet Jane finds the pair to be disingenuous – Mary is already the king’s mistress, and rumours swirl of Anne’s virtue also. Jane, who sees herself as fair and perfect, considers her cousins to be intimidating and foolish, and they care not for the company of boring Jane. Years pass and Jane works in the court, slowly rising in favour until poor Katherine is ousted.
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 But then Jane’s cousin Anne Boleyn is finally elevated from mistress to Henry’s side as queen. Jane is still unwed, a seemingly boring woman in the company of Queen Anne, who sees nothing in her lady. But trouble soon comes when Anne gives birth to a daughter for Henry.
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Jane isn’t the only Seymour at court; her young sister Elizabeth found a husband quickly and the Seymours decide to swap out Jane for another sister, Dorothy. Quiet Jane needs a plan; she goes home to Wolf Hall, where the king plans to stay on summer progress, to host the royal party, and in return her brother will find her a decent husband.
 But while everyone thinks they know Jane Seymour, quiet Jane is a totally new woman. Only she can interest Henry; not brash like Anne Boleyn, but no weakling as her family assumes. Jane has a plan all of her own. Jane goes into training; she will be no whore, and she will be no Anne Boleyn either. Jane wants better for herself and she is no pawn any longer. Jane is ready to stand up, and play her part at court, all to claim what she wants – the crown itself.
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Jane is always written as the boring queen and I enjoyed reading a book where she was anything but. Jane plays the games at court well, ready to scheme her way onto the throne, rather than being shoved on by her brother. Her brother Edward is a likable man, a product of his time, and young brother Thomas is a cad, as history suggests. Everyone knows of Edward’s second wife Anne, the bitchy sidekick of her husband. This time, Anne is a kinder woman, while my book-husband Thomas Cromwell is a man who can work with anyone, always ready to come out on top. Cromwell’s POV is used a little too, which was a bonus for me.
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 It was fun to read Jane’s perspective, who is sometimes seen as appearing from nowhere to take a king, when she was instead in the background, understanding court politics. And this book is the first in a series, so make room on your shelf!
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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Woman in the Shadows’ by Carol McGrath

The powerful, evocative new novel by the critically acclaimed author of The Handfasted Wife, The Woman in the Shadows presents the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Tudor England’s most powerful statesman, through the eyes of his wife Elizabeth. When beautiful cloth merchant’s daughter Elizabeth Williams is widowed at the age of twenty-two, she is determined to make herself a success in the business she has learned from her father. But there are those who oppose a woman making her own way in the world, and soon Elizabeth realises she may have some powerful enemies – enemies who also know the truth about her late husband… Security – and happiness – comes when Elizabeth is introduced to kindly, ambitious merchant turned lawyer, Thomas Cromwell. Their marriage is one based on mutual love and respect…but it isn’t always easy being the wife of an influential, headstrong man in Henry VIII’s London. The city is filled with ruthless people and strange delights – and Elizabeth realises she must adjust to the life she has chosen…or risk losing everything.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Thomas Cromwell is one man I have read from all angles. So I jumped at the chance to read a book about his first wife, out at the same time as my own Cromwell novel, which I set right after his wife’s death. It was the easy read I was looking for.

Elizabeth Cromwell was already a widow when she met Thomas Cromwell. With a father and husband working as merchants, Elizabeth is no fool when she comes across Cromwell. Elizabeth and Cromwell were a business match, but one also of mutual… like, maybe? Love never felt present. Affection? Kindness? Rather than focusing on what Cromwell would have been like in his earlier years, the book is written entirely from Elizabeth’s personal view, and goes into tiny detail on life for Elizabeth, such as birthing rituals of the time and the reality of marriage.

Life as a merchant’s wife is also written in tiny detail, and Elizabeth spares the reader no detail on what it was like for a woman in trade, as well as every every detail on her knowledge in wool products.

Elizabeth had to sit through adultery, arson, suitors and unfaithful staff. But Elizabeth is a woman of her time, subservient in every way and strong enough to pull through anything life gives her – after all, she had no other choice. So many novels paint Tudor women as feminists modern-day style, but Elizabeth is a servant-wife, a religious woman who had to adhere to the suffocating reality she lived in, and never questions anything. Being able to find a female character who adheres to those traits can be hard to find in any Tudor-era book, so kudos to the author.

Elizabeth was part of Cromwell’s lesser known time, one where he worked for himself and Thomas Wolsey, a far more quiet period. Elizabeth knows nothing of politics, nor seems interested in anything her husband hopes to reach for. The book is heavy on the more simple life of people in the time period, as opposed to the glamour of the court, which has been written over and over (hell, I write it myself). King Henry doesn’t matter in Elizabeth’s mind, Anne Boleyn doesn’t matter.

The book totally lives up to its name; Elizabeth was a woman in the shadows. She is just another wife of just another merchant. Cromwell hasn’t yet become the man he is destined to be, and Elizabeth is a woman trapped within the limits of her time and gender. If you love Tudor drama, this is not the book for you, but if you want a new angle on a well-used time period, then you have hit the jackpot. I must admit the ending left me feeling a bit flat and deflated, but everyone knows the sad fate of Elizabeth, dead (probably) in her thirties of sweating sickness. Elizabeth achieved no greatness and lived in the shadow of a man who also lived in the shadows of the time.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Last Tudor’ by Philippa Gregory

Image result for philippa gregory last tudorThe latest novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Philippa Gregory features one of the most famous girls in history, Lady Jane Grey, and her two sisters, each of whom dared to defy her queen.

Jane Grey was queen of England for nine days. Her father and his allies crowned her instead of the dead king’s half sister Mary Tudor, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her throne, and locked Jane in the Tower of London. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block, where Jane transformed her father’s greedy power grab into tragic martyrdom.

“Learn you to die,” was the advice Jane wrote to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and fall in love. But she is heir to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and then to her half sister, Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a Tudor son. When Katherine’s pregnancy betrays her secret marriage, she faces imprisonment in the Tower, only yards from her sister’s scaffold.

“Farewell, my sister,” writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary keeps family secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After seeing her sisters defy their queens, Mary is acutely aware of her own danger but determined to command her own life. What will happen when the last Tudor defies her ruthless and unforgiving Queen Elizabeth?

cover and blurb via amazon

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Gregory novels are a bit of a guilty pleasure. The history is a bit sketchy, the detail all fabrication, but taken as fact by many readers. The novels have their fans and their detractors, but I have them all, and don’t mind saying I like this little diversion from non-fiction.

The Last Tudor is about the Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary, the granddaughters of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s little sister. Henry’s older sister Margaret became Queen of Scotland and her family rule there; Henry did not want them taking over England when he died. He named his son Edward his successor, only to have him die aged 15. After Edward was Mary, and then Elizabeth, Henry’s daughters. If they all failed, then the Grey sisters would take turns.

Young Edward didn’t want his much older sister Mary, a Catholic, taking over after him. He rejected his father’s will, saying Jane Grey would come after him, as Edward knew his days were numbered. Jane had no interest in this, but her scheming parents, and members of the powerful Dudley family, had other plans. Married and pushed on the throne, Jane ruled for nine days before Mary came to London with an army at her back. The book tells this tale through Jane’s point of view, of a woman so determined to be godly she is irritating in her repetitive complaints. Naturally, when Jane loses her head, her part of the book comes to a sharp end.

Jane’s sister Katherine takes over, made out to be dumb and vain by Jane. She is not far wrong. Katherine has an air of a woman who expects everything given to her by right, which is a difficult characteristic to warm to. Poor Queen Mary dies, and Queen Elizabeth emerges. Portrayed as a vicious, jealous whore, Katherine has to hide her marriage to Edward Seymour, a noble man of the court, where Katherine serves the Queen. Katherine makes no attempt to see her marriage proved valid and promptly gets pregnant, while denying it to herself, her secret husband and the reader, all in the first-person narrative. Seymour whisks off to Europe on the Queen’s behalf, and the secret marriage is discovered as Katherine blooms at the waist. Elizabeth arrests her for plotting to take the throne and have an heir to the throne.

Katherine is a boring woman. She is dim and her much of her story is told in the Tower, where she sits expecting the world to rally for her, expecting to be heir to the throne while Elizabeth enjoys life and rules with an iron fist. Katherine even manages to get pregnant in the Tower when her dim husband returns as a prisoner. But it is vile how she is treated by Elizabeth (both in fiction and reality) when she released, only to be held prisoner away from her husband and son. Everyone dies forgotten and miserable.

The story takes up with Mary, a dwarf, the third sister and the least dimwitted of the set. Mary is tiny and forgotten, and yet also likes to make dumb choices. She too married in secret (since Elizabeth won’t give anyone permission to marry and potentially claim the throne), only to be caught and taken from her husband. Twelve years pass with Mary and her husband imprisoned, only for him to die. Mary is probably the one character worth rooting for in the end, but I felt she got over the heartache too easily.

I like that Elizabeth was portrayed differently than in many other novels, though there seems to be great dislike from other readers. Oh well. I liked the bitch narrative myself.  This is a book of long, quiet stretches when a reader could sigh and wonder why some women are made out to be so stupid. Maybe they really were. We will never know. Not as good as the others in the series’ by the author. You can really feel Gregory was ready to put the series to bed.

With the Grey sisters all dead, the Tudors were considered dead; Elizabeth never had a child of her own. But the Tudors weren’t gone; Katherine’s children lived on, and more importantly, Margaret Tudor’s Scottish descendants took over England. The surname changed; the blood line did not.