HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The House of Grey’ by Melita Thomas

The Grey family was one of medieval England’s most important dynasties. They were were on intimate terms with the monarchs and interwoven with royalty by marriage. They served the kings of England as sheriffs, barons and military leaders. In Henry IV’s reign the rivalry between Owain Glyndwr and Lord Grey of Rhuthun was behind the Welsh bid to throw off English dominance. His successor Edmund Grey played a decisive role at the Battle of Northampton when he changed allegiance from Lancaster to York. He was rewarded with the disputed lands and the earldom of Kent. By contrast his cousin, Sir John Grey, died at the second battle of St Albans, leaving a widow, Elizabeth née Woodville, and two young sons, Thomas and Richard. Astonishingly, the widowed Elizabeth caught the eye of Edward IV and was catapulted to the throne as his wife. This gave her sons an important role after Edward s death. The Greys were considered rapacious, even by the standards of the time and the competing power grabs of the Greys with Richard, Duke of Gloucester led to Richard Greys summary execution when Gloucester became king. His brother, Thomas, vowed revenge and joined Henry Tudor in exile.

When Thomas Grey’s niece, Elizabeth of York, became queen, the family returned to court, but Henry VII was wary enough of Thomas to imprison him for short time. Thomas married the greatest heiress in England, Cicely Bonville, their numerous children gained positions in the court of their cousin, Henry VIII, and his daughter, Mary. The 2nd Marquis was probably taught by Cardinal Wolsey but was a vigorous supporter of Henry VIII s divorce from Katharine of Aragon. But his son’s reckless involvement in Wyatt s rebellion ended in his own execution and that of his daughter, Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine Days Queen’. Weaving the lives of these men and women from a single family, often different allegiances, into a single narrative, provides a vivid picture of the English mediaeval and Tudor court, reflecting how the personal was always political as individual relationships and rivalries for land, power and money drove national events.

cover and text via Amberley Publishing

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I jumped with joy when Amberley kindly sent me a copy of this book. Thomas Cromwell was beloved by the Greys, and they are a big theme in my next Cromwell novel out next year. The Grey family has not been given enough of the spotlight, and yet they are always there, close beside the better-known members of the royal court, ready for their time to shine.

While the Grey family began in the late 1100s, it was Lord Reginald Grey of Rhuthun who rose to prominence under Henry IV, and is famous for his battles with the Welsh, and being held hostage due to failed plans. His son, Edmund Grey fought during the Wars of the Roses, splitting from his family, who supported the Lancasterians, and supported the Yorkist cause instead. His son John Grey continued to fight for the Lancastrian cause, but was killed at the Battle of St Albans in 1461, leaving his wife Elizabeth Woodville a young widow with two sons, Thomas and Richard. When she secretly remarried to King Edward IV, the Grey family became full Yorkist supporters. It is these sons Thomas and Richard the world already knows. As with many noble houses of the time period, divided loyalties were a major problem when making the wrong choice could mean death.

Richard, younger of the brothers, did well from his mother’s remarrriage, elevated at the royal court, and half-brother to the heir to the throne. But when Edward IV died in 1483, Richard Grey was executed beside his uncle Anthony Woodville, on Richard of Gloucester’s (Richard III’s) orders, aged only about 26. These killings sparked an already deeply divided power battle between the newly widowed queen and Richard III, her brother-in-law.

Elder brother Thomas Grey was a loyal Yorkist, and the Marquess of Dorset, and watched Richard III be crowned in London as his brother died, and soon after heard of the disappearance of the Princes of the Tower, his two young half-brothers. Thomas joined the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III, but when that rapidly failed, Thomas changed loyalties fled to Brittany to join Henry Tudor, who pledged to marry Thomas’ half sister Elizabeth of York, and rule England. Thomas was ready to invade England alongside Henry Tudor in 1485, only to hear that his mother had come to terms with Richard III, and he tried to desert the Lancastrian cause. Instead, he was captured by the French and held in Paris while the Battle of Bosworth saw Henry Tudor crowned Henry VII and step-uncle Richard III slain. Thomas was only released when Henry was on the throne and the new king could pay his French supporters.

Thomas Grey never recovered his influence in England after flipping between York and Lancaster, and was imprisoned during the Lambert Simnel uprising and the Battle of Stoke Field. Despite being the new queen’s brother, the cloud of treason hung over Thomas, and he enjoyed little favour until his death in 1501, aged only about 48. But Thomas had 14 children, including his heir and namesake, the 2nd Marquess of Dorset.

While his father suffered for his divided loyalties, the young Thomas Grey did well as the ward of Henry VII, only encountering trouble towards the end of the king’s life, when suspicion of treason was rife. But with the accession of Henry VIII, Thomas Grey sat comfortably for another twenty years as one of the few Marquess’ in England, until the King’s Great Matter started to divide the royal court. Grey, along with his brothers and their wives, were loyal to the king, and their Queen Katherine. The Grey family were again forced to take sides and divide their loyalties between Henry and Katherine, to their great disadvantage. But the Grey family, from Dowager Cecily Grey downwards, had the love and friendship of Thomas Cromwell, who gave them money, patronage and preference in the royal court. Thomas Grey died in 1530, leaving behind his  siblings, and also four sons and four daughters, among them Henry and Elizabeth.

While Elizabeth would go on to marry a friend of Cromwell’s, Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley, and live a happy life, Henry Grey was not the smartest man. (His grandmother Cecily asked Thomas Cromwell to watch out for him at court, guide him, possibly godfather his children, etc.) Henry married Frances Brandon, daughter to Charles Brandon and Henry VIII’s sister Mary, Queen of France; quite the coup. (Cromwell continued to favour the Grey family,and the Dudleys due to their connection in marriage to the Greys). Henry and Frances had the famous Grey three daughters – Jane, Katherine and Mary. Henry rose to the title of Duke of Suffolk after the death of his brother-in-law in 1551 (rather than earning a title), but it was Frances Brandon who was the brains of the pair, and their daughters, Jane especially, became the heirs of King Edward VI. Henry Grey saw his daughter Jane become queen for nine days in 1553, only for he and poor Jane to be overthrown, and beheaded a year after their imprisonment. After 150+ years serving high in the royal court, constant divided loyalties saw the Grey family finally slip from favour.

The story of the Grey family at court is one of huge ups and downs from family upheavals all the way up to executions from kings and queens. The Greys were an integral part of the royal court alongside Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III (and the cause of Edward V), Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Grey family members still had claims to the throne during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and succession of King James VI/I.  The story of this family takes place in a tumultuous time, and I greatly enjoyed reading this book.  As someone who prefers the players in the shadows to the stars of the royal court, the tale of the Grey family shows a new side to old tales in history. I truly love having this book in my library.

See also ‘The King’s Pearl’ by Melita Thomas

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.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Prince Arthur – The King Who Never Was’ by Sean Cunningham

During the early part of the sixteenth century England should have been ruled by King Arthur Tudor, not Henry VIII. Had the first-born son of Henry VII lived into adulthood, his younger brother Henry would never have become King Henry VIII. The subsequent history of England would have been very different; the massive religious, social and political changes of Henry VIII’s reign might not have been necessary at all.

In naming his eldest son Arthur, Henry VII was making an impressive statement about what the Tudors hoped to achieve as rulers within Britain. Since the story of Arthur as a British hero was very well known to all ranks of the Crown’s subjects, the name alone gave the young prince a great deal to live up to. Arthur’s education and exposure to power and responsibility, not to mention his marriage to a Spanish princess in Catherine of Aragon, all indicate that the young prince was being shaped into a paragon of kingship that all of Britain could admire.

This book explores all of these aspects of Prince Arthur’s life, together with his relationship with his brother, and assesses what type of king he would have been.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Henry VIII is far from the only man who took a throne and went mad. Some tend to be hard on him, as if he was the only angry ruler the world saw, making it easy to say ‘what would have happened if Arthur had never died?’

Henry VIII was the king who shouldn’t have been, making Prince Arthur the king who never was. Here is the book to answer all your questions had King Arthur I taken his place in history.

Arthur was born to role. The first child of his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Much has been made of little Arthur; some claim him fragile since birth, others draw the opposite conclusion. From a young age, Prince Arthur was given a top education, given a reigning position as Prince of Wales, close to his father the king.

Arthur was treated like a precious jewel, the king who would reign after the bloody battles of the War of the Roses. Arthur was the blood of the house of Lancaster and York combined; his existence alone suggested constant unity and peace. Given an education both in practical subjects, plus religion and humanism, Arthur got involved in local matters as a child, at his father’s side, completely prepared to take over England when the time came. Arthur had siblings, first a sister Margaret, then the spare heir Henry, and little Mary, to be followed by Elizabeth, Edmund and Katherine who all did not survive infancy. Henry and the girls were kept with their mother while Arthur was cradled for brilliance.

Officially married in 1501 after four years of being married by proxy, 15-year-old Arthur was to move to his castle in Ludlow, to rule over Wales, as his title suggested. Princess Katherine of Aragon was at his side, a Spanish princess there to ensure that Arthur’s future children would be recognised as the sole rulers of England, to soothe Henry VII’s constant fears of being usurped. Arthur boasted of bedding his new bride, words that would live for all time.

Only a few months into the marriage, Prince Arthur died at Ludlow Castle, of possible sweating sickness, leaving a widow not pregnant with the future heir. While spoiled little Henry would take the crown seven years later, along with the princess, England never got their perfect king. Queen Elizabeth died only a year after Arthur, and Henry kept his son hidden away, in the fear something might happen to his remaining son. Little Henry should have been given Arthur’s education, yet received nothing.

It is easy to suggest that Arthur’s reign would have been different. Naturally, there would have been differences. Henry broke from Catholicism in order to get rid of his wife of twenty years, on the grounds that Katherine had slept with Arthur, which she denied all her days. It is easy to say the Protestant Reformation would have never occurred in England without Henry’s need for divorce. Reformation would have come to England without Henry’s divorce, but simply would have taken a different route, as it did with other nations. Henry divorced to gain an heir with another woman, the exact same pressure Arthur would have faced if he couldn’t produce a son to inherit. For all his kindness and intelligence, Arthur could have suffered the same infertility problems as his little brother.

Cunningham’s book gives you an insight to the life of King Arthur I. It is impossible to tell for certain, but here is a good best-case scenario, with a fine leader on the throne, and a stable dynasty as a result.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Edward IV: Glorious Son of York’ by Jeffrey James

Few English monarchs had to fight harder for the right to rule than King Edward IV – Shakespeare’s glorious son of York. Cast in the true Plantagenet mould, over six feet tall, he was a naturally charismatic leader. Edward had the knack of seizing the initiative and winning battles and is free from the unflattering characterisations that plagued his brother, Richard III, having been portrayed as a good-looking and formidable military tactician. Described sometimes as reckless and profligate, all sources remark on his personal bravery. In the eleven years between 1460 and 1471 he fought five major battles in the Wars of the Roses. Three of them – Towton, Barnet and Tewkesbury – rank among the most decisive of the medieval period. This book covers Edward’s family background, the Yorkist takeover and the drift to war. It charts the tensions created by the controversial Woodville marriage and Edward’s deposition by the Earl of Warwick and subsequent exile. The return of the king brought with it battles anew and Edward’s decisive campaigns against Warwick and Margaret of Anjou. Finally, Edward’s sudden death heralded the demise of the House of York and the triumph of the Tudors against Richard III. This is a history of Edward IV’s struggle to gain and retain the kingship of England during a period of sustained dynastic turmoil during the Wars of the Roses.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Edward IV had a great claim to be England’s king, sadly, he was not the only one. The author starts easily, giving us the background of Edward’s family claim to the throne. A monster of man in those days, at 6′ 4″, Edward took the throne in 1461, and reigned over nearly a decade which had some of the most bloody battles of the War of the Roses.

While Edward was in line to claim the throne, overthrowing a sitting monarch, betraying his greatest ally and marrying for love (lust?) instead of gain did Edward no favours. For a man with battlefield experience, and political knowledge, he made errors during these dangerous years, racking up local enemies like no one else.

Edward had no trouble winning battles; Towton, then Barnet and Tewkesbury are just some of the battles he needed to fight in order to hold the throne, and this book tells the tale more like a story rather than a military strategy. Included are illustrations of the locations pivotal in Edward’s life.

One of Edward’s largest mistakes was the marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. However, had Edward married as his allies wanted, things could have still fallen apart, but without the Woodville family, doubtless lives may have been saved.

The book flies though these troublesome years until Edward’s overthrow in 1470, only to win his crown back again in six months, shortly before the death of Henry VI in prison. While the second half of Edward’s reign was far quieter, having killed the vast majority of his enemies and relations, Edward still fought in France, killed one of his brothers and grew chubby and lazy. His death in 1483 was still a great loss; while the War of the Roses saw much blood under his rule, at least some peace had begun to settle in. It would be only two years before all Edward fought for would be erased, his two sons killed and his precious brother Richard deposed by the last remaining Lancastrian enemy, Henry Tudor. But not all was lost; Edward’s daughter Elizabeth became queen, there as peace reigned in England (mostly), and their children became king of England, queen of Scotland, and (briefly) queen of France.

What I like about this book is that, while accurate, it doesn’t flow like a non-fiction biography, rather more of a story of a man who thought he was the rightful king. Trouble was, everyone thought themselves the rightful king.