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: ‘ The Reluctant Ambassador’ by Dan O’Sullivan

Sir Thomas Chaloner achieved much during his short life. As someone at the heart of four Tudor courts, his experience is fascinating.

Serving in the household of Thomas Cromwell after university, he later was entrusted with delicate diplomatic missions in France, Scotland, Flanders and finally Spain, where he was resident ambassador at the court of Philip II. His career was helped by his close friendship with William Cecil, whom he got to know at Oxford. He managed to stay employed during the religious and political upheavals of four reigns, while many close to him lost their positions and even their lives.

Chaloner was an intellectual and a humanist. He had a close circle of literary friends with whom he collaborated in the staging of court masques and other productions. He produced reams of verse and also translated several works from Latin, among them The Praise of Folly by Erasmus.

In Spain, Chaloner devoted much energy toward trying to save dozens of English sailors who had found themselves imprisoned as a result of bitter trade disputes between England and Spain. The stresses of his job weakened him physically, and he died soon after his recall, leaving a wife and young son.

Dan O’Sullivan explores the life of Chaloner and delves into the intricacies of European court life during the time of the Tudors. Chaloner, a reluctant ambassador who longed for his home in England, is a fascinating but little-known character who is here brought to life in vivid detail.

cover and blurb via amazon

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In 1541, Holy Roman Emperor Charles, who ruled much of Europe, went to war against the Turks and the Barbary pirates. He planned to besiege Algiers to free Christians from pirates, but could not attack Constantinople, as he did not have the numbers. One of these men onboard was Thomas Chaloner, on his first trip abroad from England. The fleet was caught in a storm, resulting in the loss of 8,000 lives as ships sank.

Chaloner was lucky; he could swim, unlike most. In fact, he had much luck in his early life. With a wealthy merchant father, Chaloner went to Cambridge and was given a job in Thomas Cromwell’s house. Still in his teen years, Chaloner could ready himself for life at court, learn politics and Latin, Italian and French. At St Johns College, he made a friend named William Cecil, which would help Chaloner again later in life.

Chaloner had sailed abroad as a diplomat, there to represent England while Charles V took on the Turks, and was one of the few who survived the Mediterranean storms. He went home to a new England – wife number five of Henry, Katherine Howard, was about to die. But change helped, as Chaloner gained a place on the privy council as a clerk, and as Henry failed to rule his country properly, or had Thomas Cromwell to fall back on, Chaloner was there with the men who ran England, while still in his early twenties.

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Chaloner had languages, and this made him key as a diplomat, both with overseas missions as England forged wars, and at home. By 1547, Chaloner was negotiating with the Scots to stop fighting and help gain a royal marriage for his young new king. Chaloner felt high in esteem at court, already wealthy with his inheritance and marriage to a wealthy widow. He was a humanist, enjoying the Protestant reformation.

Edward IV died in 1553 and while Chaloner’s school friend, William Cecil, and countless more fled to Europe, Chaloner decided to try to stay working for the government through the Catholic changes brought by Queen Mary. Chaloner wrote poems for Jane Grey, beheaded after her nine days as queen, but quietly managed to stay alive and work for Mary.

By by 1558, Mary was dead, and many flocked home to their Protestant princess as she was crowned Elizabeth I. Constant Chaloner was sent to meet the Holy Roman Emperor  to discuss marriage for Elizabeth, her most difficult issue throughout her reign. Chaloner then travelled to the Netherlands on Her Majesty’s behalf, only to learn his school friend, William Cecil, now Elizabeth’s right-hand man, had selected him to be ambassador to Spain.
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Chaloner hated Spain, with its Catholic soul and its intense heat. He hated Madrid with a passion; it cost too much, he never got much time with the king, and the Spanish didn’t let him be part of their secret conversations. Chaloner seemed to worry about everything, especially about being robbed of his wage as ambassador. Trouble came when Chaloner told the Spanish court that England would not support the Huguenots in France during civil war, only to find out the English had headed to battle.
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One thing fell into place for Chaloner; he couldn’t sleep in Spain and the food made him ill. Because of this, he had many nights awake, when he got write Latin poems. The poems told much of Chaloner’s time in Spain; after four years, he was convinced he would die and worried about everything.
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It was a bad time to be at the Spanish court. England was not popular with Spain, ships constantly were embattled, bureaucracy was, well, Spanish, the inquisitions were in full swing. Chaloner ended up with kidney stones from Spanish wine mixed with lime and chalk. His only bright spot was a woman named Audrey Frodsham, who travelled to Spain from England with a view to marry Chaloner once his first wife died. The trip must have gone well, because Audrey went home pregnant.
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After arguing with the Spanish government over English sailors in Spanish prisons for several years, Chaloner was finally allowed to return home to England. In 1565, he landed in England to find Audrey in his house, with a young baby in tow, named Thomas jnr. Chaloner married Audrey and then died a month later of illness.
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 Chaloner was a man able to serve in four royal households in a time when many lost their head. As much as he liked to complain, Chaloner must have been doing something right, even if it did make him into a hypochondriac. I had never even heard of Chaloner until I read this book, and a big thanks to the author for a vivid book about a lesser-known Tudor figure.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The King’s Pearl’ by Melita Thomas

Mary Tudor has always been known as ‘Bloody Mary’, the name given to her by later Protestant chroniclers who vilified her for attempting to re-impose Roman Catholicism in England. Although a more nuanced picture of the first queen regnant has since emerged, she is still stereotyped, depicted as a tragic and lonely figure, personally and politically isolated after the annulment of her parents’ marriage and rescued from obscurity only through the good offices of Katherine Parr.

Although Henry doted on Mary as a child and called her his ‘pearl of the world’, her determination to side with her mother over the annulment both hurt him as a father and damaged perceptions of him as a monarch commanding unhesitating obedience. However, once Mary had finally been pressured into compliance, Henry reverted to being a loving father and Mary played an important role in court life.

As Melita Thomas points out, Mary was a gambler – and not just with cards. Later, she would risk all, including her life, to gain the throne. As a young girl of just seventeen she made the first throw of the dice, defiantly maintaining her claim to be Henry’s legitimate daughter against the determined attempts of Anne Boleyn and the king to break her spirit.

Following the 500th anniversary of Mary’s birth, The King’s Pearl re-examines Mary’s life during the reign of Henry VIII and her complex, dramatic relationship with her father.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Called Bloody Mary through the centuries, Queen Mary has never attracted the same level of interest as her little sister Elizabeth I. This book has set out to change the stereotype of Mary, heir to the throne of Henry VIII and her powerful mother, the Queen Katherine. Mary has been seen as a Catholic fanatic, unable to navigate politics with poise or experience, a cruel woman happy to kill Protestants without thought. Mary is seen as married to a Spaniard, which somehow made her an instant tyrant.

In recent times, some authors have tried to make Mary into a more gentle figure; an innocent woman, forced away from her religious mother, determined to turn back time in England, unable to satisfy a husband or make an heir. The King’s Pearl is different again, which makes the book such a nice surprise. Instead, this book looks at Mary from an earlier angle, how her father’s reign impacted on Mary.

Mary’s early life is chronicled in serious detail, before the reality of Henry’s ‘Great Matter’ starts affecting Mary and her life. Mary was a stylish and educated young woman, witty, musical and a skilled horse rider. Mary was not weak or timid, as often portrayed; not constantly alone or at prayer, Mary could hunt or dance, host parties or play games as well as any young woman. She was beautiful and always immaculately dressed. Gone are the dull descriptions that often plagued her mother also, more likely propaganda to portray Elizabeth as superior later in life.

The list of betrothals Mary suffered though makes for bleak reading. Henry never seemed serious in finding a groom for his daughter. Mary was an unchallenged heir for much of her young life, and Henry seemed wary to ever marry her off and make her position as heir more powerful. Mary could defy her father at any time, on any level, and while others were forsaken, Mary was forgiven by Henry, dispelling the notion Henry hated his eldest daughter.

Mary may have had more in common with Elizabeth than either of them would have liked to admit; bright, intelligent girls, separated by their birth and their religion. I feel as if Mary’s reputation suffers due to her sex more than ever – Mary killed less than 300 heretics, her father killed 72,000, yet she is the bloody one? No man would have had a harmed reputation for the killing of 300. Mary rode out and took the throne from Jane Grey, the throne that was rightfully hers, and did her best, in a role she was prepared for, and Mary had her own terms. Only history hasn’t remembered her as well as it should.

This book is a worthy read indeed. Loved it. The author has created an excellent perspective on Queen Mary through facts instead of myth.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Last Tudor’ by Philippa Gregory

Image result for philippa gregory last tudorThe latest novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Philippa Gregory features one of the most famous girls in history, Lady Jane Grey, and her two sisters, each of whom dared to defy her queen.

Jane Grey was queen of England for nine days. Her father and his allies crowned her instead of the dead king’s half sister Mary Tudor, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her throne, and locked Jane in the Tower of London. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block, where Jane transformed her father’s greedy power grab into tragic martyrdom.

“Learn you to die,” was the advice Jane wrote to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and fall in love. But she is heir to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and then to her half sister, Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a Tudor son. When Katherine’s pregnancy betrays her secret marriage, she faces imprisonment in the Tower, only yards from her sister’s scaffold.

“Farewell, my sister,” writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary keeps family secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After seeing her sisters defy their queens, Mary is acutely aware of her own danger but determined to command her own life. What will happen when the last Tudor defies her ruthless and unforgiving Queen Elizabeth?

cover and blurb via amazon

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Gregory novels are a bit of a guilty pleasure. The history is a bit sketchy, the detail all fabrication, but taken as fact by many readers. The novels have their fans and their detractors, but I have them all, and don’t mind saying I like this little diversion from non-fiction.

The Last Tudor is about the Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary, the granddaughters of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s little sister. Henry’s older sister Margaret became Queen of Scotland and her family rule there; Henry did not want them taking over England when he died. He named his son Edward his successor, only to have him die aged 15. After Edward was Mary, and then Elizabeth, Henry’s daughters. If they all failed, then the Grey sisters would take turns.

Young Edward didn’t want his much older sister Mary, a Catholic, taking over after him. He rejected his father’s will, saying Jane Grey would come after him, as Edward knew his days were numbered. Jane had no interest in this, but her scheming parents, and members of the powerful Dudley family, had other plans. Married and pushed on the throne, Jane ruled for nine days before Mary came to London with an army at her back. The book tells this tale through Jane’s point of view, of a woman so determined to be godly she is irritating in her repetitive complaints. Naturally, when Jane loses her head, her part of the book comes to a sharp end.

Jane’s sister Katherine takes over, made out to be dumb and vain by Jane. She is not far wrong. Katherine has an air of a woman who expects everything given to her by right, which is a difficult characteristic to warm to. Poor Queen Mary dies, and Queen Elizabeth emerges. Portrayed as a vicious, jealous whore, Katherine has to hide her marriage to Edward Seymour, a noble man of the court, where Katherine serves the Queen. Katherine makes no attempt to see her marriage proved valid and promptly gets pregnant, while denying it to herself, her secret husband and the reader, all in the first-person narrative. Seymour whisks off to Europe on the Queen’s behalf, and the secret marriage is discovered as Katherine blooms at the waist. Elizabeth arrests her for plotting to take the throne and have an heir to the throne.

Katherine is a boring woman. She is dim and her much of her story is told in the Tower, where she sits expecting the world to rally for her, expecting to be heir to the throne while Elizabeth enjoys life and rules with an iron fist. Katherine even manages to get pregnant in the Tower when her dim husband returns as a prisoner. But it is vile how she is treated by Elizabeth (both in fiction and reality) when she released, only to be held prisoner away from her husband and son. Everyone dies forgotten and miserable.

The story takes up with Mary, a dwarf, the third sister and the least dimwitted of the set. Mary is tiny and forgotten, and yet also likes to make dumb choices. She too married in secret (since Elizabeth won’t give anyone permission to marry and potentially claim the throne), only to be caught and taken from her husband. Twelve years pass with Mary and her husband imprisoned, only for him to die. Mary is probably the one character worth rooting for in the end, but I felt she got over the heartache too easily.

I like that Elizabeth was portrayed differently than in many other novels, though there seems to be great dislike from other readers. Oh well. I liked the bitch narrative myself.  This is a book of long, quiet stretches when a reader could sigh and wonder why some women are made out to be so stupid. Maybe they really were. We will never know. Not as good as the others in the series’ by the author. You can really feel Gregory was ready to put the series to bed.

With the Grey sisters all dead, the Tudors were considered dead; Elizabeth never had a child of her own. But the Tudors weren’t gone; Katherine’s children lived on, and more importantly, Margaret Tudor’s Scottish descendants took over England. The surname changed; the blood line did not.