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.

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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.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘La Reine Blanche, Mary Tudor- Henry VIII’s Sister’ by Sarah Bryson

Mary Tudor’s childhood was overshadowed by the men in her life: her father, Henry VII, and her brothers Arthur, heir to the Tudor throne, and Henry VIII. These men and the beliefs held about women at the time helped to shape Mary’s life. She was trained to be a dutiful wife and at the age of eighteen Mary married the French king, Louis XII, thirty-four years her senior.

When her husband died three months after the marriage, Mary took charge of her life and shaped her own destiny. As a young widow, Mary blossomed. This was the opportunity to show the world the strong, self-willed, determined woman she always had been. She remarried for love and at great personal risk to herself. She loved and respected Katherine of Aragon and despised Anne Boleyn – again, a dangerous position to take.

Author Sarah Bryson has returned to primary sources, state papers and letters, to unearth the truth about this intelligent and passionate woman. This is the story of Mary Tudor, told through her own words for the first time.

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I have always had a soft spot or Mary Tudor. She was the daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. One brother was destined to be king, and the other brother really took the throne. Her sister was Queen of Scotland. It could be easy to think Mary Tudor achieved little, but she might have been the happiest of them all.

Mary was only 18 when she had to marry the 52yo King of France. I can only think how foul that would be for Europe’s most beautiful princess (she was no fool, but as per the time period, her appearance was her talking point). Mary may have been sold off to the highest bidder by her brother Henry, but she had already planned her next move – to marry Henry’s bestie Charles Brandon. Brandon had already sidelined two wives and was ready to marry the lovely Mary.

Luckily for everyone, the French king died after three months of marriage and Mary married Brandon in secret. Bryson’s book tells this wonderful tale in full detail, of two people defying King Henry to hatch this plan and marry. Was Brandon a gold -digger? I shall reserve my opinion and you can make yours while reading the book.

The author used primary sources to write about the life of Mary, in order to create a full picture of who she was outside the shadows of the men around her. Mary’s letters have survived, giving us her own hand, her own thought process. Mary was the perfect princess; beautiful, virtuous, religious, skilled in all the areas a woman was meant to excel. But Mary was no uneducated woman – she may have been handed to France and into the bed of a creepy old guy, but she knew how to play men. Mary used a classic skill – make the man in her way think her ideas were all his, and then praised him for ‘his’ thoughts, while succeeding behind his back. Women with opinions were heretics; women who praised men after planting ideas were perfect wives/sisters/princesses/mothers. Mary used her charm not only for herself, but for people who came to her in need, a calming female voice in a harsh male world.

Mary became The White Queen (the nickname often now given to her grandmother Elizabeth) while wearing white, the French colour of mourning. Mary was meant to waiting to see if she was carrying the French heir, but instead she was writing, to plan the fortunes of the rest of her life. Mary wanted to come back to England, not stay in France and be married off again for English-French relations. Mary wanted to marry Brandon, and she was played the slow game in her words to her kingly brother.

Mary, of course, suffered for her marriage to Brandon, but being Henry’s favourite sister, returned to glory, bore many children with Brandon, and died in her fifties after spending her life beloved by her brother and husband. Her granddaughter Jane would become England’s queen for nine days. Mary was not just a king’s sister and pawn, she was a woman who was able to quietly plot the course of her life. Mary was not loud or dramatic in history, yet a woman born to an extraordinary couple, with extraordinary siblings, and lived her own free life in a time of great turmoil.

This is the only book I would turn to when referencing Mary Tudor. It is an essential volume on any discerning bookshelf.