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.

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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!

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII’ by Gareth Russell

Written with an exciting combination of narrative flair and historical authority, this interpretation of the tragic life of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, breaks new ground in our understanding of the very young woman who became queen at a time of unprecedented social and political tension and whose terrible errors in judgment quickly led her to the executioner’s block.

On the morning of July 28, 1540, as King Henry’s VIII’s former confidante Thomas Cromwell was being led to his execution, a teenager named Catherine Howard began her reign as queen of a country simmering with rebellion and terrifying uncertainty. Sixteen months later, the king’s fifth wife would follow her cousin Anne Boleyn to the scaffold, having been convicted of adultery and high treason.

The broad outlines of Catherine’s career might be familiar, but her story up until now has been incomplete. Unlike previous accounts of her life, which portray her as a naïve victim of an ambitious family, this compelling and authoritative biography will shed new light on Catherine Howard’s rise and downfall by reexamining her motives and showing her in her context, a milieu that goes beyond her family and the influential men of the court to include the aristocrats and, most critically, the servants who surrounded her and who, in the end, conspired against her. By illuminating Catherine’s entwined upstairs/downstairs worlds as well as societal tensions beyond the palace walls, the author offers a fascinating portrayal of court life in the sixteenth century and a fresh analysis of the forces beyond Catherine’s control that led to her execution—from diplomatic pressure and international politics to the long-festering resentments against the queen’s household at court.

Including a forgotten text of Catherine’s confession in her own words, color illustrations, family tree, map, and extensive notes, Young and Damned and Fair changes our understanding of one of history’s most famous women while telling the compelling and very human story of complex individuals attempting to survive in a dangerous age.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I have to admit that I am no fan of Catherine Howard. By the time that Henry married Catherine, he was fat, demented and most importantly (to me), had turned against my book-husband Thomas Cromwell. So I read little about wife number five. The whole Catherine Howard incident is just one big hot mess, and one of the main indicators of how far Henry had already fallen.

King Henry had spent twenty years on the throne as a golden king, praised by all in word and art, so to cement a legacy, but Henry’s third decade showed signs of decay. By the time that Henry had denied Anne of Cleves because of his erectile issues, it was little Catherine Howard who had accidentally wandered into view, as a teenage attendant to Anne. Anne of Cleves was an educated, travelled woman and Henry was more in need of a child who had no thoughts or opinions and could be manipulated by a man who would make a better grandfather than lover.

The English court expected women to be virgins, perfect and untouched in every way. Yet men roamed freely, unguarded in their desires, as if their meddling had no effect on virginity. Catherine Howard was a simple girl, raised away from family and without anyone really caring for her. Catherine makes the perfect victim to be targeted by an old weirdo.

Russell’s book tells the story about how court life would have been in Catherine’s time; the late 1530’s were an awful time all round, with Henry’s leg increasingly pressing upon his sanity, the country in revolt, and Anne of Cleves getting the blame for Henry’s lack of male…. well… just, ew.

Catherine was a victim of her own lifestyle, one she never chose. Without a decent education or people to confide in, she fell for charms of young men liked a pretty face. A sweet girl told whispers of love is easy prey for older men. By the time Catherine was sent to court to wait on the new Queen Anne, she had already become a victim of her own existence.

Henry, a fat, old man with a desire to feel special and young again, laid eyes on a girl, not a seductress or whore as claimed, but an innocent girl who was whisked away in the glamour of being courted by the most powerful man in the land. Henry had been married to Catherine’s cousin, Anne Boleyn, and yet Catherine had not been shown a caution around the king, and soon was caught up with a man who never loved her, rather loved the idea of her instead.

Catherine, covered in gowns and jewels, played the role of token on the king’s arm, only to fall in love – with someone else. A man who worked in Henry’s chamber, a man known to be a disgusting human being in his own right, was happy to let Catherine’s feelings run away with her, thinking she could have romance in her life while playing concubine to an ailing fat man.

Catherine’s life ended far too soon, scared, alone and never believed in her words and deeds. A young girl who wanted, needed, to be loved, was instead used and abused by everyone, a minor detail in a long story of depravity that was the end of Henry’s reign. It is nice to read about the life and facts of Catherine, instead of whore narratives.

 

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor: Elizabeth I, Thomas Seymour, and the Making of a Virgin Queen’ by Elizabeth Norton

A power-hungry and charming courtier. An impressionable and trusting princess. The Tudor court in the wake of Henry VIII’s death had never been more perilous for the young Elizabeth, where rumors had the power to determine her fate

England, late 1547. King Henry VIII Is dead. His fourteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth is living with the king’s widow, Catherine Parr, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour. Seymour is the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife, the late Jane Seymour, who was the mother to the now-ailing boy King.

Ambitious and dangerous, Seymour begins and overt flirtation with Elizabeth that ends with Catherine sending her away. When Catherine dies a year later and Seymour is arrested for treason soon after, a scandal explodes. Alone and in dreadful danger, Elizabeth is threatened by supporters of her half-sister, Mary, who wishes to see England return to Catholicism. She is also closely questioned by the king’s regency council due to her place in the line of succession. Was she still a virgin? Was there a child? Had she promised to marry Seymour?

Under pressure, Elizabeth shows the shrewdness and spirit she would later be famous for. She survives the scandal, but Thomas Seymour is not so lucky. The “Seymour Scandal” led Elizabeth and her advisers to create of the persona of the Virgin Queen.

On hearing of Seymour’s beheading, Elizabeth observed, “This day died a man of much wit, and very little judgment.” His fate remained with her. She would never allow her heart to rule her head again.

cover and blurb via amazon

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While Edward Seymour, the eldest brother of Jane, Queen of England, was well-connected, respected, and Lord Protector of King Edward VI, there was the just as well-known brother, Thomas. Thomas Seymour had his own interesting, but definitely not as prestigious, history. Seymour was the brother of one of the Henry’s queens, and uncle to the young King Edward. Because of this happy accident, Seymour had a high sense of importance, and felt he was owed a place close to the young king and parliament.

Seymour wandered his way through the latter part of Henry’s reign (after the death of Jane) and was madly in love with Catherine Parr. When her second husband died, Seymour and Parr were keen to marry; but King Henry decided he needed a sixth wife and took Catherine for himself.

Seymour had previously tried to get himself a bride in the form of Henry’s daughter, Princess Mary, without success. When Henry dropped dead, Thomas’ paramour was no longer a queen, and Seymour married Parr just four months after Henry was buried. With Edward Seymour the child king’s Protector, Seymour was now married to the king’s stepmother, and got himself the title of Lord High Admiral.

That was when the self-entitled younger brother started to show off his creepy in a more obvious way. Before the hurried marriage to Catherine, Seymour had asked to marry 13-year-old Elizabeth, without success. Now, married to the dowager queen, Seymour had access to little Elizabeth every single day.

June 1547 was only months after her father’s death, and Elizabeth started receiving early morning visits from Seymour, coming into her room half-dressed while she was in her nightgown, even once climbed into her bed, and was known to smack her butt when given the chance. She was only 13, he was married and beneath her, and for a man to do such things in a girl’s rooms was considered shameful. Poor Elizabeth had no say, and Catherine soon started to be suspicious. With Catherine pregnant, Seymour would have had a wandering eye – and it seems all he ever wanted was little Elizabeth, and more importantly, the power she held.

By mid 1548, things were out of hand and Catherine found her husband with Elizabeth in his arms, and Elizabeth was banished. Sent away, Elizabeth spent months sick after the acts – some whispered pregnancy, though more likely shock of the abuse and then banishment.

Poor Catherine Parr died a week after giving birth to a daughter, in September 1548. Seymour sent a nephew to Elizabeth’s new household to spy on her, and asked whether or not her butt had grown any since he had last grabbed it. Talk about a pervert.

Luckily for Elizabeth, she did not have to suffer Seymour’s abuse again, and in January 1549, Seymour got arrested for conspiring to marry Elizabeth, kidnap Elizabeth’s brother, the King Edward, and rule England himself. Elizabeth testified against Seymour, as did two servants to Elizabeth, and Seymour was beheaded in March 1549.

Given the lack of evidence, the abuse suffered by Elizabeth is questioned, sometimes written off as play or harmless games. This book is a great read for anyone who wants to know more about these years of Elizabeth’s early life. To me, Seymour comes across as a classic abuser; makes a girl feel shamed and claims all is in jest, which mocks the victim further. Catherine Parr knew something was happening, and didn’t scorn her stepdaughter, but never lived long enough to speak out.

I enjoyed reading this book, and the author did not try to lean the reader in either direction in terms of outcome, but I certainly got my own conclusion on the ugly subject. It could be easy to call this gossip or scandal, when it seems more like an ugly situation many girls and women find themselves in, with few who believe them.

 

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife’ by Amy Licence

Catherine of Aragon continues to fascinate readers 500 years after she became Henry VIII’s first queen. Her life was one of passion and determination, of suffering and hope, but ultimately it is a tragic love story, as circumstances conspired against her. Having lost her first husband, Henry’s elder brother Prince Arthur, she endured years of ill health and penury, to make a dazzling second match in Henry VIII. There is no doubt that she was Henry’s true love, compatible with him in every respect and, for years, she presided over a majestic court as the personification of his ideal woman. However, Catherine’s body failed her in an age when fertility meant life or death. When it became clear that she could no longer bear children, the king’s attention turned elsewhere, and his once chivalric devotion became resentment. Catherine’s final years were spent in lonely isolation but she never gave up her vision: she was devoted to her faith, her husband and to England, to the extent that she was prepared to be martyred for them. One of the most remarkable women of the Tudor era, Catherine’s legendary focus may have contributed to the dissolution of the way of life she typified.

cover and blurb via amazon

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If it’s about Catherine of Aragon, it’s going in my collection. Catherine is my favourite queen/wife of the six, an intriguing woman, and not just because of what she suffered through while being the wife Henry scorned.

Books by Amy Licence are around me in all directions; in any burst of reviews I do, there will be an Amy Licence among them. The best part about Amy Licence is that she doesn’t write wives, daughters, etc, she write about women. Yes, there is a difference, boys.

This beautiful golden book is divided into seven parts, starting with a section on Catherine’s origins, her ancestry and, of course, her glorious mother, Queen Isabella, before moving onto the negotiation of Catherine’s move to England.

Catherine’s short marriage to Arthur is given ample detail as well as the question of did-they-didn’t-they. Rather than relying on words said by others, whether they considered themselves eyewitnesses or not, Licence has made practical and reasonable suggestions around the issue.

Catherine’s difficult years as a widow, left wanted and unwanted over seven painful years is detailed, which shows much of Catherine’s ever-growing strength and her Catholic devotion. The early years of her beautiful and beloved marriage is also included, before the changing years after the death of her final child.

The “Great Matter” naturally takes a large chunk of the book, and I particularly enjoyed the section on Catherine’s time in exile and martyrdom as she stuck to her beliefs and principles. There really has been no queen like Catherine, no queen as wise, astute, educated, understanding and well-nurtured as Catherine. No amount of books on the subject is enough.

Licence’s latest book is beautifully written, and Catherine is not the dour woman of many portrayals, but a learned woman who went through so much, and seemed prepared to weather all of it. I truly love this book. No review could cover this wonderful biography.