HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The King’s Witch’ by Tracy Borman

As she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth, Frances Gorges longs for the fields and ancient woods of her parents’ Hampshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer.

Frances is happy to stay in her beloved countryside when the new King arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion. His court may be shockingly decadent, but James’s religion is Puritan, intolerant of all the old ways; he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft.

So when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to court, she is trapped in a claustrophobic world of intrigue and betrayal – and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the King’s first minister.
Surrounded by mortal dangers, Frances finds happiness only with the precocious young Princess Elizabeth, and Tom Wintour, the one courtier she can trust.

Or can she?

cover and blurb via amazon

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I am a very big Tracy Borman fan. I did not angle for a review copy, instead I went to a store and purchased her first novel myself. The new release stand was full on release day, here on the other side of the world, a rare occasion for the books I tend to review.

The King’s Witch opens with poor old Elizabeth I, in her dying moments. The book follows Frances Gorges, an expert in healing and herbs. King James is now on the throne, a dramatic change for England. Women healing and using herbs and their developed skills, rather than that of a male doctor, are seen as evil, as devil’s work. King James is terrified of witches and witchcraft, so to be a woman with knowledge makes young Frances right in the firing line against puritanical opinions and fears. Frances does have allies, Tom, a courtier, and the Princess Elizabeth. Whether she can trust her own friends is never truly clear to Frances.

This novel starts slowly, showing Frances’ life, indeed lives for ‘normal’ people in this awkward time period in England. What I did see early on was that there would be a twist coming, which keeps you turning the page. Frances grows as their reader gets to know her, from a scared girl into a woman who gets to see behind the lavish exteriors of a royal court for what really lies in individuals.

When reading Borman, you know you are getting historical accuracy with your fiction (I swear some people only read to point out inaccuracies in fiction; you lot will be disappointed with this). It is nice to hear from a new voice, rather than through the eyes of characters done so often before. Being cast as a witch was simple in the 17th century, all a woman had to do was piss off the closest man and she would be accused. So being a woman with knowledge naturally scares the pants off men. While the king is determined to cast out all remaining Catholics in England, religion remains ingrained in all decisions made.

Frances’ biggest issue is that her friend Tom is Tom Wintour, one of the men in the gunpowder plot with Guy Fawkes (shout-out to all of us born on November 5!). Tom is ready to blow up parliament and the attention to the how’s and why’s rather than simply the actions taken in 1603 is beautifully told. The gunpowder plot men are generally thought of as crazies, when they actually had quite an elaborate plan and motive. While we all know what happened to the gunpowder plot, seeing it through the eyes of someone close to these men makes it painful to read through, knowing the conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading this book; I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. Love, torture, witchcraft, what a combination to write about and get to muse over, knowing that the early 1600’s really was one hell of a cauldron of superstition. Frances’ uncle, the Earl of Northampton, makes an appearance as a sometimes friend, sometimes overly creepy uncle everyone doesn’t want visiting, and don’t forget Lord Cecil, a grump at the best of times, aiding the king’s paranoia for gain but harming Frances’ safety even more.

Some are witches being killed, others are being tortured and executed for trying to change the monarchy. You know it’s all going to end in tears but you can’t stop reading anyway. Thank you to Tracy Borman for humanising those in an often misunderstood piece of history.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Anne Boleyn: Adultery, Heresy, Desire’ by Amy Licence

Anne Boleyn’s unconventional beauty inspired poets ‒ and she so entranced Henry VIII with her wit, allure and style that he was prepared to set aside his wife of over twenty years and risk his immortal soul. Her sister had already been the king’s mistress, but the other Boleyn girl followed a different path. For years the lovers waited; did they really remain chaste? Did Anne love Henry, or was she a calculating femme fatale?

Eventually replacing the long-suffering Catherine of Aragon, Anne enjoyed a magnificent coronation and gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth, but her triumph was short-lived. Why did she go from beloved consort to adulteress and traitor within a matter of weeks? What role did Thomas Cromwell and Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall play in Anne’s demise? Was her fall one of the biggest sex scandals of her era, or the result of a political coup?

With her usual eye for the telling detail, Amy Licence explores the nuances of this explosive and ultimately deadly relationship to answer an often neglected question: what choice did Anne really have? When she writes to Henry during their protracted courtship, is she addressing a suitor, or her divinely ordained king? This book follows Anne from cradle to grave and beyond. Anne is vividly brought to life amid the colour, drama and unforgiving politics of the Tudor court.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Are you thinking, oh God, another biography of Anne Boleyn? Is there anything else to know? I can tell you that, yes, there is more to know and you should be thrilled to get this one. Amy Licence has practically handed a perfect account of Anne’s life to readers on a silver plate. Come bask in its glory.

Regardless whether you think Anne stole the throne, was a home-wrecking schemer, or she was the king’s love, this book covers all angles, all details and all possibilities. Licence starts with Anne’s family and background, to see how a woman could be so loathed for her background compared to more noble beginnings, despite the fact Anne had a wonderful education abroad, enough for any noble man. The time period of Anne’s life was one where, as a young girl, the royal family of England was relatively stable; Henry married to Katherine, the odd mistress thrown in for good times (his at least). But when Katherine hit menopause and religious opinion was suddenly flexible, Anne’s life could never be the same.

The realities of the time are not romanticised by the author – being a woman was not all gowns and chilling with your lady friends. These people, with their lives dictated by custom, ceremony and family loyalties, were still real people. They loved, they loathed, they hurt like anyone else. The Boleyn family, while not as noble as others (only Anne’s mother was noble born), had their own plans in this world.

Anne served the archduchess of Austria, and Henry’s sister Mary when she was Queen of France. She also then served mighty Katherine, Queen of England. Anne was no fool, no commoner, yet not quite ever noble enough. Her family wanted better, and could you blame them? But the portrayal as the Boleyns as scheming, as pushing daughters forward as whores under the king’s nose has done Anne no favours, and this book can make Anne lovers feel safe she is not portrayed as some witch.

Women routinely became mistresses, as the social order gave this is an avenue, yet was frowned upon (um, who was sleeping with these girls, gentlemen?), and a route Anne’s sister Mary took with Henry, and we shall never know for sure if Mary really wanted the job. But Anne knew, regardless, that she would not do the same thing. She loved Henry Percy, and wanted to have a real marriage, real love, only to have it dashed away thanks to that same social order.

The book delves into Anne’s rise to power as Henry’s paramour, and discusses whether she played him as part of a strategy or whether she was forced into a ridiculous game with no option but to play along. No woman can say so no to a King; Anne had to be his love, his mistress-without-benefits (or did they share a bed? The book discusses), and Henry’s selfish nature sent him down a path Anne couldn’t have imagined. She wanted to be a man’s wife, not whore. Henry, in turn, got Thomas Cromwell to destroy the social order and religious boundaries. Even the most scheming woman couldn’t have predicted that.

Licence uses excellent sources for her biography, and as a person hungry for minor details on certain periods of Anne’s life, I fell upon these pages with great excitement. Anne was smart, she had morals, she had a temper and a strong will, so much so that king chased her long enough to create divorce from the Catholic Church and make her a queen. No one does that for any mistress.

Anne married Henry, and received a coronation with the crown only meant for ordained kings, and gave Henry the Princess Elizabeth. Anne should have had full control of her life by then, only to find she was more helpless than ever. Having given up her virginity but given Henry no son, she fell from favour, and when Henry asked Cromwell to remove Anne to make way for another virgin with a womb, poor Anne was destroyed in a way everyone knows, never learning what a glorious queen her daughter would become. What people didn’t know was the truth over the whole debacle that brought Anne to the executioner’s sword.

As a woman, a spurned one at that, Anne’s history became sullied with lies and cruelty – that she was a femme-fatale who turned into a whore and witch, that she gave birth to a monster child, that she had disfigurements. History was not ready to tell the truth about a smart, powerful woman. Thank God we live in a time where historians like Amy Licence are able to guide readers through Anne’s real history without forcing conclusions on readers.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor: Elizabeth I, Thomas Seymour, and the Making of a Virgin Queen’ by Elizabeth Norton

A power-hungry and charming courtier. An impressionable and trusting princess. The Tudor court in the wake of Henry VIII’s death had never been more perilous for the young Elizabeth, where rumors had the power to determine her fate

England, late 1547. King Henry VIII Is dead. His fourteen-year-old daughter Elizabeth is living with the king’s widow, Catherine Parr, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour. Seymour is the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife, the late Jane Seymour, who was the mother to the now-ailing boy King.

Ambitious and dangerous, Seymour begins and overt flirtation with Elizabeth that ends with Catherine sending her away. When Catherine dies a year later and Seymour is arrested for treason soon after, a scandal explodes. Alone and in dreadful danger, Elizabeth is threatened by supporters of her half-sister, Mary, who wishes to see England return to Catholicism. She is also closely questioned by the king’s regency council due to her place in the line of succession. Was she still a virgin? Was there a child? Had she promised to marry Seymour?

Under pressure, Elizabeth shows the shrewdness and spirit she would later be famous for. She survives the scandal, but Thomas Seymour is not so lucky. The “Seymour Scandal” led Elizabeth and her advisers to create of the persona of the Virgin Queen.

On hearing of Seymour’s beheading, Elizabeth observed, “This day died a man of much wit, and very little judgment.” His fate remained with her. She would never allow her heart to rule her head again.

cover and blurb via amazon

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While Edward Seymour, the eldest brother of Jane, Queen of England, was well-connected, respected, and Lord Protector of King Edward VI, there was the just as well-known brother, Thomas. Thomas Seymour had his own interesting, but definitely not as prestigious, history. Seymour was the brother of one of the Henry’s queens, and uncle to the young King Edward. Because of this happy accident, Seymour had a high sense of importance, and felt he was owed a place close to the young king and parliament.

Seymour wandered his way through the latter part of Henry’s reign (after the death of Jane) and was madly in love with Catherine Parr. When her second husband died, Seymour and Parr were keen to marry; but King Henry decided he needed a sixth wife and took Catherine for himself.

Seymour had previously tried to get himself a bride in the form of Henry’s daughter, Princess Mary, without success. When Henry dropped dead, Thomas’ paramour was no longer a queen, and Seymour married Parr just four months after Henry was buried. With Edward Seymour the child king’s Protector, Seymour was now married to the king’s stepmother, and got himself the title of Lord High Admiral.

That was when the self-entitled younger brother started to show off his creepy in a more obvious way. Before the hurried marriage to Catherine, Seymour had asked to marry 13-year-old Elizabeth, without success. Now, married to the dowager queen, Seymour had access to little Elizabeth every single day.

June 1547 was only months after her father’s death, and Elizabeth started receiving early morning visits from Seymour, coming into her room half-dressed while she was in her nightgown, even once climbed into her bed, and was known to smack her butt when given the chance. She was only 13, he was married and beneath her, and for a man to do such things in a girl’s rooms was considered shameful. Poor Elizabeth had no say, and Catherine soon started to be suspicious. With Catherine pregnant, Seymour would have had a wandering eye – and it seems all he ever wanted was little Elizabeth, and more importantly, the power she held.

By mid 1548, things were out of hand and Catherine found her husband with Elizabeth in his arms, and Elizabeth was banished. Sent away, Elizabeth spent months sick after the acts – some whispered pregnancy, though more likely shock of the abuse and then banishment.

Poor Catherine Parr died a week after giving birth to a daughter, in September 1548. Seymour sent a nephew to Elizabeth’s new household to spy on her, and asked whether or not her butt had grown any since he had last grabbed it. Talk about a pervert.

Luckily for Elizabeth, she did not have to suffer Seymour’s abuse again, and in January 1549, Seymour got arrested for conspiring to marry Elizabeth, kidnap Elizabeth’s brother, the King Edward, and rule England himself. Elizabeth testified against Seymour, as did two servants to Elizabeth, and Seymour was beheaded in March 1549.

Given the lack of evidence, the abuse suffered by Elizabeth is questioned, sometimes written off as play or harmless games. This book is a great read for anyone who wants to know more about these years of Elizabeth’s early life. To me, Seymour comes across as a classic abuser; makes a girl feel shamed and claims all is in jest, which mocks the victim further. Catherine Parr knew something was happening, and didn’t scorn her stepdaughter, but never lived long enough to speak out.

I enjoyed reading this book, and the author did not try to lean the reader in either direction in terms of outcome, but I certainly got my own conclusion on the ugly subject. It could be easy to call this gossip or scandal, when it seems more like an ugly situation many girls and women find themselves in, with few who believe them.

 

A Cromwell Adventure – Part 2: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell as played by James Frain in Showtime’s ‘The Tudors’

Thomas Cromwell – lawyer, politician, religious reformer, mercenary, charmer, merchant, party thrower, country changer, money-lender, queenmaker. When people hear the name Cromwell, they think of Oliver Cromwell. Wrong century. Thomas Cromwell is the only man in English history you need to know. He managed to destroy the Catholic Church’s hold in England and their greatest queen all at once, and became a common man who took over England, and the nobility couldn’t do a thing about it. Here is a short and simple introduction.

Cromwell’s birth is not recorded, but thought around 1485, in Putney, to mother Katherine and father Walter, a blacksmith, merchant and brewery owner. He was simply another common baby born, along with two sisters, around Putney Hill.  In his own words, he was a ruffian as a child. At some stage, Cromwell left home and travelled to France, became be a mercenary in the French army, marched into Italy, and fought as a soldier in the battle of Garigliano in December 1503, all by about 18 years old.

Then Cromwell’s life turned around. Starving and homeless, Cromwell found himself in Florence, where he met a banker named Francesco Frescobaldi, an English-speaking merchant who took him into his household, giving him a home and a job. Working as a merchant on Frescobaldi’s behalf, it is believed Cromwell worked successfully in Florence and the Low Countries (what is now parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg). He created his own network of merchants in English, Italian and Flemish, though very little is known of this empire-building part of his life. But he is recorded as a patient in a Roman hospital in June 1514, and Cromwell pops up in Vatican archives as an agent for the Archbishop of York and working for the Roman Rota (like a Catholic Church court system).

Cromwell doesn’t appear anywhere until his name appears back in England, when he married Elizabeth Wyckes in 1515, a girl who also grew up in Putney, but was a widow after her first husband, a Yeoman of the Guard, passed away. Three children came into Cromwell’s life – Gregory in about 1520, Anne and then Grace soon after.

Cromwell found himself a job in the household of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. England’s most powerful man, a favourite of King Henry. Henry was inclined to leave the heavy lifting in the kingdom to Wolsey. With his knowledge as a lawyer (yes, that happened somewhere along the way), in 1517 Cromwell returned to Rome to visit Pope Leo X on Wolsey’s behalf, where he was said to have charmed the Pope into seeing him and granted the papal bull (like a decree or patent) he required for his master. He returned a year later to again see the Pope, such was Wolsey’s trust in Cromwell.

By 1520 Cromwell was doing well, in both legal and merchants circles in England. He continued his work for Wolsey, but also earned money as a lawyer and cloth merchant, and in 1523, won a seat in parliament (the where’s and how’s are not firmly established). But parliament was dissolved (Henry and Wolsey disliked people making decisions for them), and Cromwell was accepted to Gray’s Inn (like passing the bar for lawyers) in 1524.

Cromwell took on more work and started to become more powerful under Wolsey at this time. In 1525 he did Wolsey’s dirty work and closed corrupt monasteries, to redirect their money into building The King’s School, Ipswich (now Ipswich School) and Cardinal College in Oxford (now Christ Church, part of Oxford University). Cromwell was one of Wolsey’s council members by 1526 and his secretary in 1529. Then things took their dramatic turn.

Thomas Cromwell, as played by Mark Rylance in BBC’s ‘Wolf Hall’

Around 1528-1529, Cromwell’s wife and two daughters all died of sweating sickness (a bit like the plague without the boils). King Henry was trying to divorce Queen Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey and another Cardinal, Lorenzo Campeggio from Rome, sat in legatine court to decide on whether the King could gain an annulment. When the court folded, Henry turned on his well-known rage, and Wolsey was fired, banished and humiliated. Cromwell was determined not to suffer the fate of his master and friend.

Anne Boleyn hated Wolsey with a passion, and Cromwell moved out of the Cardinal’s shadow and charmed his way into working directly for King Henry. In late 1530, Wolsey died on his way to execution (you couldn’t make this up) and Cromwell set to making Anne Boleyn queen, and also breaking the stranglehold of the Catholic faith in England. Countries like Germany (or the areas that make up modern Germany) were reforming, creating the Protestant faith, freeing Catholics from the Latin scriptures and suffocating nature of the Church. Cromwell found that reforming the Church was the way to ensure Anne Boleyn could be queen. Cromwell got himself into a prime role beside the king, and got himself back into parliament, and completed a series of law changes which stripped the Church’s power and made annulment possible (I’m massively over-simplifying here). Anne Boleyn gained her crown in June 1533, and Princess Elizabeth was born three months later. The Pope had not annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine, but by now the Church of England existed and Henry was the leader, not the Pope. Cromwell was a hero in Henry’s eyes, and hated by pretty much everyone else.

In 1534, Cromwell was King Henry’s chief minister, plus in parliament, and running the royal treasury, the royal jewel house, the steward of Westminster and many other titles. With the chance to continue reforming religion, Cromwell had Henry’s blessing to continue with destroying the Catholic Church, interrogating and killing clergymen, weeding out corruption, and famously had everyone in England swear an oath stating Henry ruled the Church, not the Pope. When famous haters of reform, and Queen Katherine supporters, Sir Thomas More (now Saint Thomas More) and Bishop John Fisher (now also a saint) refused to take the oath, Cromwell had them both beheaded in June 1535. The King appointed Cromwell Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General of England, and Cromwell conducted an extensive census, so he could start taxing monasteries around the nation (the monasteries had money pouring from every gap, powerful in their communities and known for corruption). By now, Cromwell was unpopular with most, but loved by King Henry ever more. Cromwell had total power over the Church in England, which made him as powerful as Henry himself.

Is this Thomas Cromwell? A recreation kept by The National Trust for Scotland in Aberdeenshire

Viceregent Cromwell passed a law suppressing lesser monasteries in England, so their funds could be directed to Henry’s accounts. Queen Anne did not like this, and turned on her precious Cromwell, forgetting he was the power that made her Queen. She had her chaplain preach against him before the royal court, making him an enemy. Anne wanted the monastery money sent to the people for education and charity, while Cromwell followed Henry’s orders and gave it to the royal accounts. Already Anne Boleyn had failed in giving Henry a son that she promised, and now she had Cromwell, England’s real power, against her.

With Jane Seymour, one of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting, catching Henry’s eye, Anne became unpopular with the King (the only person who liked her). So when Henry wanted a new queen, a pretty blonde girl was ready, and Cromwell was more than ready to destroy the queen had made only a few years earlier. He had his power and the dissolution of religious control. Anne Boleyn had to die.

Cromwell had Anne Boleyn arrested and tried in May 1536 of adultery, with her brother George, Henry’s close friends and staff Henry Norris, Francis Weston, William Brereton, and court musician Mark Smeaton. Also tried was Thomas Wyatt, court poet and diplomat, but he was a friend of Cromwell, and was spared. In court, Cromwell had the judges find Anne and the men all guilty of adultery and sentenced to death, all with the King’s blessing. All the heads quickly rolled and Henry married Jane Seymour ten days later.

Is this Thomas Cromwell? A 1859 engraving published in Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, Germany.

Now Baron Cromwell and Lord Privy Seal, Cromwell enjoyed total control, passing more laws destroying anything Catholic related, and even great monasteries in England were pulled down. The Church was pulled from the people and Protestant changes were forced upon everyone. Henry got his beloved son from Jane Seymour, only to have her die in childbirth in July 1537. But Cromwell had his own troubles as the commoners were marching in their tens of thousands, calling for his head over the changes being made to their country. The famous Pilgrimage of Grace against Cromwell failed, and English Bibles turned out over England while Catholic relics were gathered and destroyed. By mid 1539, the Catholic Church was more or less wiped out thanks to Cromwell’s extensive law changes. But Henry was sick of the changes, unhappy with the unrest in England, and in need of wife number 4.

The famous sole surviving painting of Thomas Cromwell, done by Hans Holbein, year unknown. It is said it was hidden to protect it from being destroyed – but by whom?

Queenmaker Cromwell found Anne of Cleves, a German noblewoman, from a Protestant nation (Cleves was tiny country/province now in Germany), but Henry, now a fat old man, said his new German bride was too ugly for him (again, this is massively over-simplifying). Cromwell took the blame for Henry marrying a German girl he wouldn’t (or many say couldn’t) bed. Like Henry’s libido, Cromwell’s favour had run out.

But in April 1540, Henry made Cromwell an earl and named him Lord Chamberlain. Trouble was, Cromwell’s huge list of enemies had pushed teenager Catherine Howard forward as a new bride. Cromwell was the man who married Henry to an ‘ugly’ woman, and his enemies had fresh meat for him to defile. Henry turned on Cromwell, having him arrested on heresy and treason charges, but mostly because Anne of Cleves wasn’t pretty enough. A serious of false charges were thrown at Cromwell, tossed in the Tower, and he was beheaded, in what is mentioned as the worst beheading ever (as in, the executioner needed to butcher him to get the head off) on 28 July 1540. Henry married Catherine Howard the same day, only to cut off her head less than two years later (Anne of Cleves got an annulment, kept her virginity, and lived happily in England for all her days).

Henry soon regretted losing Cromwell, and a replacement never took Cromwell’s place beside Henry. The vast amounts of money Cromwell made for Henry was squandered in a petty French war in 1545, and all Cromwell had done was lost. His son Gregory (who had married Jane Seymour’s sister) died in 1551 of sweating sickness, and there was a rumour of a bastard daughter named Jane, though none of that has been proven (you shall have to read my book for that).

the famous sole surviving painting of Cromwell, done by Hans Holbein, year unknown. It was hidden so it couldn’t be destroyed – but by whom, and where?

Cromwell’s Protestant England caused countless deaths, with Henry’s son being a Protestant king, his daughter Mary a Catholic queen and then Queen Elizabeth back to Protestant. Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s only child, made the country firmly Protestant and the changes to law and government made by Cromwell were built on to help shape what England has become.

Cromwell disappeared from history, only one portrait of him surviving, his paperwork all destroyed during his trial. In 1953, Geoffrey Elton wrote of Cromwell, studying and discovering, while Henry was a mastermind and despot, it was Cromwell who held the real power of the era. Cromwell brought government from the medieval times to the modern age and was portrayed as the bad guy, until the last decade, where tv and books have tried to show Cromwell in a more positive light.

My first Cromwell book will focus on his creation of Anne Boleyn, the second about the creation of Jane Seymour, and finally the creation of Anne of Cleves, all books covering his creation of Protestant England. Thomas Cromwell is no longer a forgotten genius.

Check back for very regular updates on posts about all the character of Frailty of Human Affairs, out September 1.