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.

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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Women in Medieval England’ by Lynda Telford

This fascinating book explores the status of women in medieval England, both before and after the Norman Conquest.

The author starts by contrasting the differences in status between Anglo/Danish or Saxon women with those who fell under the burden of the feudal system imposed by the Normans. She covers such subjects as marriage and childbirth, the rights and responsibilities of wives, separation and divorce, safety and security and the challenges of widowhood. She also examines such issues as virginity and chastity and the pressures placed on women by religious groups.

At a time when women’s rights were minimal, the author charts their struggles against the sexual politics of the era, its inequalities and its hypocrisies. She also examines the problems of the woman alone, from forced marriage to prostitution. The lives of ordinary women are the centre of attention, painting a fascinating picture of their courage and resilience against the background of their times.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Resting on the theme of women in history is Women in Medieval England. My initial interest in this book was the pre-conquest women included. England and its rulers is so often detailed as post-1066, so someone like myself with limited knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon era found the overview and laws of the time useful. New leaders made for new husbands for noble women, who may not even be able to understand them, given language barriers. A nightmare of any woman, and to cap it off, not speaking your new husband/owner’s language is a scary thought.

What classified as marriage was quite different (as I’m sure everyone knows) which made for a messy history and difficult lives for the women traded to their husbands. The book even delves into what was birth control in the pots-1066 era, and lol-worthy concepts for cures for impotence. Life for women was exceptionally difficult, mostly due to the largely uncontrollable act of pregnancy, and the book shows just how damned awful it was for our predecessors to battle on creating a new generation.
Married life was all kinds of awful – as everyone knows the ‘rule of thumb,’ in that a man cannot beat his wife with anything thicker than his thumb. Though, in some ways, you read this and wonder how much life has altered for many women. This book digs through a realities of being a woman in the medieval period, where men are cast as sword-wielding heroes, women have been left standing in mud-floor huts. This shines a light on those women, who had the temperament of saints, strength tougher than any soldier, and bravery beyond that of a king. The world was a strange place for women; you could die of the plague, or you could survive an outbreak and clean up in the vacant jobs market.
This is no heavy book you will be reaching for when researching, it is a read on the lives of women in a world none of us would want to return to. There is plenty of information to be had in here, without feeling like you’re in a history lesson, a book for those who would like to read for pleasure, not study.

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: ‘Game of Queens’ by Sarah Gristwood

Sixteenth-century Europe saw an explosion of female rule. From Isabella of Castile, and her granddaughter Mary Tudor, to Catherine de Medici, Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth Tudor, these women wielded enormous power over their territories, shaping the course of European history for over a century. Across boundaries and generations, these royal women were mothers and daughters, mentors and protégées, allies and enemies. For the first time, Europe saw a sisterhood of queens who would not be equaled until modern times.

A fascinating group biography and a thrilling political epic, Game of Queens explores the lives of some of the most beloved (and reviled) queens in history.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Sarah Gristwood has written a superb book detailing the lives of incredible queens from England, Spain. France, The Netherlands and Hungary, starting with Isabella of Spain through to Elizabeth I. Without sounding like I am hero-worshipping, this biography is perfection.

Isabella of Spain was unlike any queen before her. She had inherited Castile in her own right, married the king of Aragon and became the warrior leader needed to invade southern Spain and conquer it for the Christians. The example as a female leader set a standard for her daughters, including Katherine, who would go on to be queen of England.

The beauty continues as the book does not solely tell the tales of English queens (though Queen Katherine crushing of the Scots is brilliant, as is Margret Tudor on the Scots side with all her turmoil), other countries and their female leaders are given much page-time. Marguerite of Navarre is detailed, describing the intriguing relationship with her brother Francis I and her own mother, Louise of Savoy. Her diplomatic skills are recognised, along with her role in the Protestant Reformation. Marguerite also tutored Anne Boleyn, noting how Anne’s birth was her downfall, as she knew when to push forward but not when to hold back, not born into a royal role.

Mary of Hungary is a great addition to the book. With her strong noble family, she was a queen in Hungary as well as governor of the Netherlands in her own right. Mary of Guise is displayed as astute in Scotland, and Catherine de Medici’s long life ruling over France is beautifully written. A bastard daughter risen to be a wife of a second son instead became the French queen and was able to steer own family in ruling the nation.

Queenship is regularly overshadowed by kingly pursuits, when history can lavish us with wise, educated women. Religion plays out over every tale, where it could help steer these queens, guide or justify their behaviour and aid them in keeping their kingdoms alive. While the fate of women was always in the hands of male family members, these women took the hand they were dealt and ruled, an example to everyone.

Gristwood’s book is flawless and I would recommend it to absolutely everyone.