HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Edward II the Man – A Doomed Inheritance’ by Stephen Spinks

Edward II is one of the most controversial kings of English history. On numerous occasions he brought England to the brink of civil war.

Author Stephen Spinks argues that Edward and the later murdered Piers Gaveston were lovers, not merely ‘brothers-in-arms’. Influenced by successive royal favourites and with a desire for personal vengeance, his rule became highly polarised and unstable. His own wife took a lover and invaded his kingdom resulting in his forced abdication; the first in British history. Edward’s prevailing legacy remains the warning that all kings can fall from power.

And yet … war, debt and baronial oppression before 1307 ensured that Edward II inherited a toxic legacy that any successor would have found almost impossible to wrestle with. Stephen Spinks explores that legacy using contemporary and later sources. By focusing on Edward’s early years as much as on his reign, and exploring the conflicting influences of those around him, Stephen shows the human side of this tale against a backdrop of political intrigues and betrayals. He peels back the layers to reveal the man who wore the crown. Edward’s belief in his unchallengable right to rule, increasingly at odds with those at his court, and his undeniable thirst for revenge, creates a fourteenth-century tragedy on a grand scale.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Poor Edward II; he constantly gets spoken of in negative terms. I confessed to not knowing Edward II in much detail, so to receive this book was much appreciated.

The rule of Edward II suffered from war, famine and betrayal, though Edward inherited a troubled kingdom from his father, Edward I, in 1307. By the time he became king, Edward was already very close to Piers Gaveston, long considered to be Edward’s lover. The incredible closeness of the pair would trouble Edward for many years.

Edward’s troubles increased when he married Isabella of France when she was just 12. Edward was able to continue loving his buddy Piers, and also women of his court, before Isabella was old enough to bear their first child at around the age of 16. The author uses primary sources to discuss these issues, and while nothing can ever be proved around Edward’s sexuality, the author’s suggestion of a homosexual relationship seems very likely.

Edward’s initial troubles came from within, barons around the country pushing against his plans to reform the country and secure money and favour. Edward and Gaveston effectively ruled together, and the nobles disliked the king’s lover. The book tells the story of Gaveston’s eventual capture and murder in 1312 in detail.

Edward forged on without Gaveston, seeking peace with France and money from various sources, only to face war against Robert the Bruce in 1314, followed by bad weather which crippled and starved England for seven long years. Many saw this as a punishment from God, and civil war broke out in 1321, and by the time this was quashed, the Scots were at it again, followed by the French.

By late 1326, Edward had fallen from his wife’s favour, thanks to having to flee the Scots and the ever-rising power of Hugh le Despenser at court (and his also-horrid son of the same name). With Edward in a relationship with the horrible younger Hugh, Isabella set off to France on a mission and would not come home. Isabella fell in love with Roger Mortimer and they prepared to invade England from France, succeeding in 1327 when Edward’s support collapsed. The Despenser father was killed, and Edward’s lover Hugh the Younger was castrated and beheaded. Edward was imprisoned while Isabella and Mortimer ruled, with many nobles executed.

Edward II died imprisoned in September 1327, and Isabella and Mortimer continued to rule with her son Edward III named as king. By 1330, young Edward had disposed Mortimer from his place of wealth and power and executed. Rumours of Edward II’s murder swirled, with graphic depictions of torture. While this dramatic life is written up, the book tells the story of Edward as a person rather than simply a ruler. The book ends with copies of letters written by Edward II to his son and the king of France, and a letter written about the suspected survival of Edward after his supposed death.

The author has gone into great detail to tell the story of Edward II as the facts and evidence present themselves. While history is littered with speculation, the author leaves his own assumptions out, leaving the reader to decide based on facts, not opinion. Congratulations to Stephen Spinks on a wonderful read.

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DECEMBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Alberto’s Lost Birthday’ by Diana Rosie

A little boy and his grandfather embark on a quest to find the old man’s missing birthday in Diana Rosie’s debut novel, Alberto’s Lost Birthday.

Alberto is an old man. But he doesn’t know how old – he remembers nothing before his arrival at an orphanage during the Spanish civil war.

He rarely thinks about his missing childhood, but when seven-year-old Tino discovers his grandfather has never had a birthday party, never blown out candles on a birthday cake, never received a single birthday present, he’s determined things should change. And so the two set out to find Alberto’s birthday.

Their search for the old man’s memories takes them deep into the heart of Spain – a country that has pledged to forget its painful past. As stories of courage, cruelty and love unfold, Alberto realises that he has lost more than a birthday. He has lost a part of himself. But with his grandson’s help, he might just find it again.

cover and blurb via amazon

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I read this whole book in one sitting; that is a testament to how easy it is to read this sweet work of fiction. By the time I was two-thirds through, I was desperate to see how it all played out.

The book bounces around the trip of Alberto and his seven-year-old grandson, Tino. Tino’s father is in the hospital after a horrific burning accident, and Alberto tries to distract the child with the story of how, as an orphan, he doesn’t know his own age or birthday. They head off on a road trip to find out what happened to Alberto as a young boy.

Other chapters are peppered through the book from the point of view of other major players  in Alberto’s early life- the woman who cared for him at the orphanage, the girl who grew up with him, the angry fascist commander who was killing people during the Spanish Civil War, Alberto’s birth mother and father, a young priest and an English International Brigade fighter who finds young Alberto in the forest. Between these point of views and of elderly Alberto on his mission, the heartbreaking story all comes together.

The Spanish Civil War rears its ugly head, showing the misery of growing up a orphan in war-time, the realities for Alberto’s birth parents, the sins of the 1930’s, all mixed with a few moments of bad luck, PTSD and beautiful family ties torn to shreds, comes together to find the true date of Alberto’s birth written in a rather unusual place.

.Alberto’s first ever party is laced with a pain I could see coming but didn’t want to acknowledge, but his search also healed pains for many people left scarred by the battles of the late 1930’s. The book is simple and no fuss, has its quiet moments, but tells a painful tale in a gentle way. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to everyone.

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.

NOVEMBER SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Moor’s Last Stand’ by Elizabeth Drayson

The Moor’s Last Stand presents the poignant story of Boabdil, the last Muslim king of Granada. Betrayed by his family and undermined by faction and internal conflict, Boabdil was defeated in 1492 by the forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of the newly united kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The Christian victory marked the completion of the long Christian reconquest of Spain and ended seven centuries in which Christians, Muslims and Jews had, for the most part, lived peacefually and profitably together. Five centuries after his death, Boabdil continues to be a potent symbol of resistance to the forces of western Christendom, and his image endures in contemporary culture.

Elizabeth Drayson presents a vivid account of Boabdil’s life and times and considers the impact of his defeat then and now.

cover and blurb via amazon

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The Moor’s Last Stand focuses on Boadbil, who suffered the great loss of the Alhambra and city of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. While the year is most known for that idiot Columbus stumbling off to find Asia and instead becoming a toxic force in the Americas, what happened to Spain itself is a great tale all on its own.

Much is made of Spain before the period of Ferdinand and Isabella’s ethnic cleansing. It is so often said the Muslims, Jews and Christians were living together in mostly harmony. In Boabdil’s Granada, Christians were slaves, or people tolerated by the free population. People were ‘protected’ by their monarchs, as Isabella believed, and so sought to ‘free her people’, which included Jews, who were owned by her – as she thought, anyway.

Moors (or Saracens as they called themselves) were about 30% of Aragon population, where Ferdinand reigned, used for labour, a commodity to be owned and keep the Christians rich. They ‘converted’ after the expulsion of Boabdil from Spain, and while this conversion was claimed as voluntary, we all know it was not. Christian scholars around Europe considered Spain to be filled with faithless Jews and baptised Moors (their words, not mine), which started the exclusion of the Jews, 300,000 people booted from their homes, many killed over the course of the Spanish Inquisition. While the Inquisition is used mostly in jokes these days, what went on in Spain through forced conversions, the hunting of Muslims and the expulsion of Jews is a subject usually only measured through the success of the Christian successors.

The story of Boabdil is a beautiful book indeed. The Nasrid dynasty is fleshed out by the author. The story tells of Boabdil’s father who took a Christian slave girl as a wife, destroying Boabdil’s mother, and the sons turned from their father, the family all forced to take sides. Boadbil ruled the Muslim south from the Alhambra, and while he was not great in war (captured twice), he did delight on declaring war on his own relatives. This infighting was just a greater force as the Christian ‘conquest’ of Granada in 1492. The moment where Boabdil stopped at the now-named Slope of Tears, the famous words from his mother were uttered – “You do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.” But Boabdil surrendered his city under the terms that Moors would not have to become Christians, and was given the Alpujarra mountains outside Granada, though he was later forced to leave Spain for Africa from the same spot his ancestors came to Spain 700 years earlier.

Naturally, all terms of surrender were broken and the Moors were forced to convert, or were killed or chased away. But, much to Ferdinand and Isabella’s disgust no doubt, the hidden spots of the Islamic rule in Spain still exist today. Spain could have been a powerhouse throughout Europe had the Moors not been turned out. Land would not have been abandoned and barren, art and medicine would not have been forced back in time, the Muslims and Jews not slaughtered and crushed, their cultures and ideas not blacklisted. Thank you to the author for approaching the fight of 1492 from an angle that is easy to read and yet fully explains the other side of the Ferdinand and Isabella conquest.