HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy’ by Matthew Lewis

The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favourite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus.

Supported by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen made a promising start, but Matilda would not give up her birthright and tried to hold the English barons to their oaths. The result was more than a decade of civil war that saw England split apart. Empress Matilda is often remembered as aloof and high-handed, Stephen as ineffective and indecisive. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.

cover and text via Pen & Sword

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I must admit that the civil war of the 12th century is definitely not in my time period of expertise, but this book jumped out for two reasons – 1) that a kick-ass woman was trying to be a king, and 2) Matthew Lewis wrote it. I thought there was no way this book could fail.

In 1120, King Henry I lost his only legitimate male heir, William, in the disaster of the White Ship. The sole heir to the throne was being a moron, and drunkenly sank his ship off the coast of Normandy, killing hundreds. While the king had two dozen bastard children (though one bastard son also died aboard the White Ship), all Henry had to inherit his throne was William, and his older sister, Matilda. With the loss of William, Henry I had what all kings fear – the possibility to handing power to a woman.

Matilda was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, only to have him die in 1125, when Matilda was still young. Henry moved his daughter back to Normandy, and set about making her the heir to the English throne. Matilda married Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, and the nobles of England and English-controlled France swore fealty to Matilda and Geoffrey. Matilda didn’t seem to like her husband, but in 1135, when King Henry died in Normandy, she was pregnant with her third child, and ready to march on cities and put down rebellions.

Enter Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, the Count of Boulogne and new Duke of Normandy. Stephen hastily made his way to England, and claimed the English throne for himself while Matilda battled Anglo-Norman nobles. This problem of multiple claimants to the throne started The Anarchy, which would last for almost 20 years. Both Matilda and Stephen were descendants of William the Conqueror, and Stephen had the backing of the church, developed ways to raise money, and was prepared to fight the Scottish, the Welsh and Geoffrey of Anjou for Normandy. While several years of fighting had moderate success, by 1138, the tide was turning on all fronts, and supporters were withdrawing support for Stephen in favour of Matilda.

Lewis’ book tells the story from both points of view. Stephen seems to have been a well-liked man, with his wife, Queen Matilda, a powerful ally at his side. On the other side, Matilda is also a strong woman, her half-brother Robert a loyal supporter, and her husband Geoffrey a tough man. Matilda landed in England in 1139, but Stephen was hesitant to lay siege on a castle harbouring a female enemy. But he had underestimated his cousin, for Matilda, alongside Robert, was ready to fight for the throne. By 1141, Matilda had captured Stephen.

Matilda was an incredible woman. She lived in a time where men simply couldn’t comprehend a woman in power. She couldn’t be a woman who ruled, she needed to be a king. The fine line Matilda needed to walk was one almost impossible; she was expected to be a woman, but act like a king. She needed to rule and control as a king, but all her nobles and commoners saw was a woman. Empress Matilda, Lady of England and Normandy, set forth to London to be coronated, only to have the population revolt against her just days before she wore the crown as king of England.

Matilda soon had to face another battle, from Stephen’s wife Queen Matilda, who overthrew Matilda and forced her into hiding. Matilda was forced to let Stephen go from prison, in return for her brother Robert, who was caught by Queen Matilda in battle (phew!).

Battles continued for several years with Stephen still the king, and Matilda on her own with husband Geoffrey taking Normandy across the channel. In 1147, Matilda’s brother Robert died, and her son Henry, aged only 14, took up the battle in his mother’s name. But the fresh fighting produced no winners, and young Henry wanted to bail out, but was broke. King Stephen paid for his enemy to leave the fighting, a strange gesture indeed, paying his cousin and enemy to safely leave. This left the people of England to make truces and find some peace at last, but Matilda wasn’t done yet.

By 1153, Henry was at it again, fighting Stephen for the crown. But instead of battles to the death, Stephen and Henry made peace, and decided Henry would be Stephen’s heir, in place of Stephen’s own son who was ruling in France. Stephen died only one year later, and Henry became King Henry II, leaving his mother Matilda to never rule England.

This book goes into fine detail about the battles that raged over this bloody period in English history, which gives The Anarchy context and fleshes out the realities of what happened to the country, and how the people suffered over the period of 1135 – 1154. With the book covering both Stephen and Matilda, it makes it hard to decide who you want to win. Matilda was an extraordinary woman in English history, so to hate Stephen for taking her throne should be an easy task. Instead, Stephen is a liked and capable man  who makes the right decision at crucial moments. Despite the 19 years in which the civil war spanned, there were times of peace in all areas of the country.  Neither Stephen nor Matilda made the battle for the crown personal, neither wished to kill the other, or at least it seemed. When it fell to Henry II to rebuild after the fighting, rebuilding the country and her finances took only around a decade, and went on to rule much of France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. To suggest England was in anarchy under Stephen isn’t the full picture, which Lewis details meticulously. However, with the coinage debased and law and order a mess, the battle had done much harm to the general population in the south, while northern areas were largely untouched. The fortunes of England raised and fell with every move Matilda and Stephen made.

I expected to read this book, cheering for Matilda’s success, despite knowing the ultimate outcome already, and yet that didn’t happen. Lewis has written the book in a way that the reader can see the battle from both points of view and I liked Stephen more than I wanted to. There is much to cover in The Anarchy, and yet the author fits it all in without wasting any time. While I was already a very big Matthew Lewis fan, this book has left me better for reading it, learning about a period I probably wouldn’t have bothered with if not for him.

 

 

 

 

 

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: ‘Richard III: Loyalty Binds Me” by Matthew Lewis

King Richard III remains one of the most controversial figures in British history. Matthew Lewis’s new biography aims to become a definitive account by exploring what is known of his childhood and the impacts it had on his personality and view of the world. He would be cast into insecurity and exile only to become a royal prince before his tenth birthday.

As Richard spends his teenage years under the watchful gaze of his older brother, Edward IV, he is eventually placed in the household of their cousin, the Earl of Warwick, remembered as the Kingmaker; but as the relationship between a king and his most influential magnate breaks down, Richard is compelled to make a choice when the House of York fractures. After another period in exile, Richard returns to become the most powerful nobleman in England. The work he involves himself in during the years that follow demonstrates a drive and commitment but also a dangerous naïveté. 

When crisis hits in 1483, it is to Richard that his older brother turns on his death-bed. The events of 1483 remain contentious and hotly debated, but by understanding the Richard who began that year, it will become clearer what drove some of his actions and decisions. Returning to primary sources and considering the evidence available, this new life undoes the myths and presents a real man living in tumultuous times.

cover and blurb via Amberley Publishing

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I have to be honest, I am very much Ricardian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Richard III get vilified by Shakespeare (well, by 21st century actors, anyway) and barely contain my rage.  I don’t think Richard is perfect, a completely impeachable hero (no one is), but I also don’t think him a child-killing villain. There are few like Richard, a man who had suffered a great deal in a short time before his fateful battle at Bosworth. And it takes an author as fine as Lewis to dig into the details of Richard’s life. Most books either love or hate Richard, whereas this writer doesn’t go down either road, and instead gives us an insight into the mind of a man who became king, lost his own family, and then was overthrown by a man with a flimsy claim. Richard was a king, now a legend, but he was also just a man, and here is a book where we finally get to meet Richard. I moved books around on my Richard shelves to make room for this biography before it even came out.

While many books write about 1483 onwards, so much happened in Richard’s life leading up to the crown. The first half of the book digs deep into Richard, those in his life, the battles he fought, his ideals in life and religion, all as he grew into the king people focus on now. Much happened to Richard in his short life – overcoming a spinal deformity would have shaped his thoughts. He grew up around powerful people, like the Nevilles, who would do anything for power. Richard was prepared to lay down his life for his brother Edward, and yet his brother George betrayed them both, harm which would cause a wound that could never truly heal. Edward was king on the back of Richard’s hard work, and Richard ran the north in England and kept an eye on Scotland for his sovereign, all before the age of thirty.

But when King Edward died in April 1483, all the moments in Richard’s life which shaped him would come in play. The next three months have been debated since the moment they happened, but this book gives a reader a more detailed insight into why Richard acted as he did, thought as he did. It seems Richard was neither a murderous villain desperate for power, or an innocent caught up in a disaster. The illegitimacy of the Princes in the Tower is well discussed too, whether Richard was fooled, or did he simply miss important details, or was he the master? I can’t tell you, because spoilers, but the murky situation and Richard’s handling is a reflection of many events long before the mess with the Princes. Another important detail in the events of 1483 is the death of Hastings, a particular favourite subject of mine. Again, in the interest of spoilers (as in the excellent research on Lewis’ part) I won’t share all that is written, but the whole situation felt fresh to me, a tough feat after 500 years and a whole lot of writing on the subject.

Richard’s life went from a powerful ruler in the north after years of fighting, to having brother George executed, to his brother Edward dead before his time, to being thrust onto the throne, to his nephews disappeared, to his precious wife and son dead from illness, to betrayal by men he trusted… how much can one man take in only a few years? By the time Richard faced Henry Tudor at Bosworth, Richard’s life was circling the drain, yet he remained confident of victory. This book talks of Richard in a positive way, without soundly like it is gushing with adoration; rather, it shows the whole life of an extraordinary man. England could have had a fine king, had Richard been given the chance.

This book is worthy of five stars. Matthew Lewis wrote The Survival of the Princes in the Tower not to long ago, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Loyalty Binds Me is an excellent addition to any library. Imagine saying you like Richard III but don’t have Lewis in your collection?

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: ‘The Survival of the Princes of the Tower’ by Matthew Lewis

The murder of the Princes in the Tower is the most famous cold case in British history. Traditionally considered victims of a ruthless uncle, there are other suspects too often and too easily discounted. There may be no definitive answer, but by delving into the context of their disappearance and the characters of the suspects Matthew Lewis examines the motives and opportunities afresh as well as asking a crucial but often overlooked question: what if there was no murder? What if Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York survived their uncle’s reign and even that of their brother-in-law Henry VII? There are glimpses of their possible survival and compelling evidence to give weight to those glimpses, which is considered alongside the possibility of their deaths to provide a rounded and complete assessment of the most fascinating mystery in history.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Everyone knows the story of the Princes of the Tower, two royal brothers, one ready to be crowned, his brother the ‘spare heir,’ locked in the Tower of London by their uncle, who would instead crown himself King Richard III. The boys would then disappear from the planet completely soon after.

There is a list of suspects of who murdered Edward, aged 12, and Richard aged 9, at the time of their imprisonment. There is no proof the boys were even murdered, but their total disappearance, and Richard III’s short-lived reign a result of that disappearance, leaves little doubt.

King Richard III is the prime suspect – his brother Edward’s sons were to inherit the throne before him. But King Richard and deceased Edward had a brother – George (also deceased). George himself had a son and daughter, and the departed Edward had a slew of daughters with a claim to the crown. If Richard wanted to kill the boys in the Tower to take the throne, he would have had to eliminate all the children – and he harmed none.

Henry Tudor was in France, ready to invade and marry one of Edward’s daughters and claim the throne. This made the royal sisters of the Princes (and George’s children) threats. Yet King Richard never declared that young Edward and Richard had died in the Tower. They disappeared but were never announced as deceased. The fact they were not known as dead meant they remained a threat. They could have fallen ill; they could have been killed by another.

Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham made himself a suspect in the murder by his behaviour. He rebelled against King Richard, with a view to his own as claim, making him a candidate for needing the boys murdered. Buckingham was quashed by Richard’s forces and executed, and making him the ‘murderer’ would have been so easy. But King Richard never publicly blamed Buckingham for the deaths, when he easily could have used him as a scapegoat. It suggests neither killed the princes.

Some claim Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s mother, had the boys killed so her son could inherit the throne. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest this but the theory persists through fiction and Lewis’ book does discuss the possibility. Henry Tudor married the Princes’ oldest sister, so the odds of him murdering her brothers is slim.

King Richard III’s guilt seems to easy to accept, and the author brings up many details to help clear Richard’s name. The rumours of the Princes’ death are as strong as the survival of the boys. The Princes’ own mother never blamed Richard for the deaths. The books tell of Elizabeth Woodville and her son Thomas Grey under suspicion, a detail I didn’t know until reading this version of the affair. And then there is Perkin Warbeck, the Prince Richard pretender who haunted Henry VII.

Could Edward and Richard have survived? Was there ever a murder of the Princes in the Tower? Or is there are far more interesting version to be told? This book is fantastic and I would recommend it to Tudor fans and newbies alike. As an A+ fan of Richard III, I welcome any book looking to clear his darkened name. Thank you, Matthew Lewis.