HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Raven’s Widow: A Novel of Jane Boleyn’ by Adrienne Dillard

The river was as calm as I had ever seen it. Ordinarily, the tide would have been wild by this time of year, and woe unto any man unfortunate enough to fall into the fierce currents of the Thames. Tonight the tides were still, and the surface of the water appeared glassy. When I peered down into the dark depths, I saw my tired, drawn face wavering in the reflection. I quickly turned away as I fought back a wave of nausea, frightened by the anguish I saw etched there.

“Only a few moments more my lady, the Tower is just ahead.”


Jane Parker never dreamed that her marriage into the Boleyn family would raise her star to such dizzying heights. Before long, she finds herself as trusted servant and confidante to her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn; King Henry VIII’s second queen. On a gorgeous spring day, that golden era is cut short by the swing of a sword. Jane is unmoored by the tragic death of her husband, George, and her loss sets her on a reckless path that leads to her own imprisonment in the Tower of London. Surrounded by the remnants of her former life, Jane must come to terms with her actions. In the Tower, she will face up to who she really is and how everything went so wrong.

cover and blurb via amazon

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No one with the name Boleyn has fared well through history or fiction, and Jane Boleyn is definitely no exception. In recent times, Jane has been pained as a snitch, a mean, meddling and jealous woman, one who helped get her husband beheaded. Here, Dillard sets out to paint a very different woman.

Jane Parker was born in around 1505 to Henry Parker, Baron Morley and Alice St John (so through her mother’s family, a distant relative of King Henry). By 1520 Jane was in service to Queen Katherine, and considered an attractive woman for her time. By 1525, marriage had been arranged to George Boleyn, brother of two women, Anne and Mary Boleyn, whom also served Queen Katherine. As the Boleyn family were of little consequence at the time, little is recorded about the marriage, or Jane herself. It seems they had a loving marriage, though no children were ever born to the pair. Here, possible miscarriages and losses are added to the book to gain a different insight with artistic licence.

After Mary Boleyn’s time as the king mistress ended, it was Anne’s turn to fall prey to Henry, whom loved her deeply right through the 1520’s, and it was then that the Boleyns rose in the court and public eye. By 1533, Anne was queen of England, and Jane was in her service, now Viscountess Rochford. No part of Jane’s life could have prepared her for such circumstances. Jane is written as caring, emotional, irrational but interesting through the trials of being the queen’s sister-in-law, through the eyes of a courtier not often chosen as a main protagonist.

History remembers Jane as the one who told Cromwell that Anne and George were committing incest to gain a child to claim as King Henry’s. But Jane n reality was a woman married to a man who was a womaniser (though is portrayed as kinder and more chaste in this book), and, when George lost his head, she had to plead and bow to regain favour.

In this book, as in life, Jane is a character who manages to survive, to serve Anne of Cleves and then Katherine Howard as queens, before Jane too loses her head for helping Queen Katherine set up dates with her secret lover in 1542. The twist in this book is how Jane is not written as the scheming bitch who happily served her husband and sister-in-law to the axe so she could continue to survive. Also, Jane’s breakdown right before death is also given a fresh look. A book for those who are on the look out for something new.

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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: ‘Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester’ by Nicola Tallis

The first biography of Lettice Knollys, one of the most prominent women of the Elizabethan era.

Cousin to Elizabeth I – and very likely also Henry VIII’s illegitimate granddaughter – Lettice Knollys had a life of dizzying highs and pitiful lows. Darling of the court, entangled in a love triangle with Robert Dudley and Elizabeth I, banished from court, plagued by scandals of affairs and murder, embroiled in treason, Lettice would go on to lose a husband and beloved son to the executioner’s axe. Living to the astonishing age of ninety-one, Lettice’s tale gives us a remarkable, personal lens on to the grand sweep of the Tudor Age, with those closest to her often at the heart of the events that defined it.

In the first ever biography of this extraordinary woman, Nicola Tallis’s dramatic narrative takes us through those events, including the religious turmoil, plots and intrigues of Mary, Queen of Scots, attempted coups, and bloody Irish conflicts, among others. Surviving well into the reign of Charles I, Lettice truly was the last of the great Elizabethans.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Lettice Knollys is such an interesting person, a life filled with enough drama and excitement that anyone would envy her. One of the few women of the English court not to be named Katherine, Anne, Elizabeth or Mary, Lettice Knollys was the daughter of Catherine Carey, the so-called love child of Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn.

While Catherine Carey wasn’t formally recognised as Henry’s love-child, the odds are high, making Carey the half-sister of Queen Elizabeth, and thus Lettice was Elizabeth’s niece, rather than cousin. The two women looked much alike, and as Lettice was only 10 years younger than her aunt, she was the younger gorgeous redhead. Dressed in clothes of the period, Queen Elizabeth and Lettice look much alike, same hair, face, smile. The author of this book leans closely to the fact that Henry VIII was Lettice’s grandfather, and had she been male, would have been an illegitimate heir to the throne. Lettice was a Tudor, something fast disappearing from the world.

Lettice married well at 17 to Walter Devereux, Viscount Hereford and bore him four surviving children (out of five, pretty good). Lettice was young, happy and known as the most beautiful woman at the English court. Elizabeth, ever-vain, needed to be centre stage and could have been annoyed, but yet she and Lettice were close. Elizabeth had her own love – Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whom she could not marry. This is how two Tudor women became bitter rivals.

Lettice’s husband, now Earl of Essex, shipped out to Ireland at the queen’s behest in 1573, and Lettice started an affair with the queens’ favourite, Dudley. While nothing could be confirmed and most accounts are long-lost, the book tells of how rumours swirled of the affair and Lettice carrying and bearing children while her husband was away. Devereux came home after two and half years away, having heard all about his wife’s behavior. But Devereux left for Ireland again six months later, only to die soon after of dysentery while complaining about women being frail.

Lettice fought hard for an inheritance for herself and her children, and her affair with Dudley continued despite him being Elizabeth’s favourite. Dudley had wanted to marry Elizabeth, but was unable to for many reasons, and so had instead gone to the bed of the younger Tudor model. He married Lettice in secret in 1578, two years after she was widowed, he himself a widower for some 18 years at this point. Just two days later, Lettice sat with the queen at dinner, the secret safe, as it would be for  years, with Lettice and Dudley moving about regularly, usually separated. Lettice lost a  baby in 1580, gave birth to a son in 1581, and lost another in 1582. Their precious only son died in 1584, causing great grief to the pair.

But in 1583, all hell had broken loose. Elizabeth found out her favourite had married Lettice, and was living openly with her in his own home. A bond which had almost certainly begun in childhood was broken; Lettice was banished from Elizabeth’s presence, furious the man she wouldn’t marry had married someone else. Dudley was sent on several trips abroad, before he fell ill, possibly with malaria in September 1588 and he died with Lettice at his side.

Lettice remained out of favour with the queen, living a country life with a new husband, a young soldier named Sir Christopher Blount, former attendant to her late second husband. She struggled with the loss of her eldest son and suffered many financial troubles, and did not see her queen again until 1598, where the meeting remained icy a decade after Dudley’s death. The love triangle between Dudley and the two red-headed Tudor women never healed.

Thanks to the Essex revolt of 1601, Queen Elizabeth beheaded Lettice’s precious remaining son and her new husband , both for treason. She spent much time fighting over inheritances with a bastard son of Robert Dudley, and then lived with her daughters and their children, outliving them. She lived quietly under King James and King Charles, dying at her grandson Robert’s home in December 1634, aged 91, a symbol of  bygone age.

Lettice’s life, born under Henry VIII, a bastard grandchild to the great king, grew up under him, King Edward, Queen Mary, lived through Queen Elizabeth’s reign, then King James and King Charles, is a story of wonder, drama, intrigue, heartache and love. Why there aren’t many books on such an incredible woman is a mystery. Thank you so much to Nicola Tallis for the book I have been waiting for, a perfect read on a riveting subject.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Woman in the Shadows’ by Carol McGrath

The powerful, evocative new novel by the critically acclaimed author of The Handfasted Wife, The Woman in the Shadows presents the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Tudor England’s most powerful statesman, through the eyes of his wife Elizabeth. When beautiful cloth merchant’s daughter Elizabeth Williams is widowed at the age of twenty-two, she is determined to make herself a success in the business she has learned from her father. But there are those who oppose a woman making her own way in the world, and soon Elizabeth realises she may have some powerful enemies – enemies who also know the truth about her late husband… Security – and happiness – comes when Elizabeth is introduced to kindly, ambitious merchant turned lawyer, Thomas Cromwell. Their marriage is one based on mutual love and respect…but it isn’t always easy being the wife of an influential, headstrong man in Henry VIII’s London. The city is filled with ruthless people and strange delights – and Elizabeth realises she must adjust to the life she has chosen…or risk losing everything.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Thomas Cromwell is one man I have read from all angles. So I jumped at the chance to read a book about his first wife, out at the same time as my own Cromwell novel, which I set right after his wife’s death. It was the easy read I was looking for.

Elizabeth Cromwell was already a widow when she met Thomas Cromwell. With a father and husband working as merchants, Elizabeth is no fool when she comes across Cromwell. Elizabeth and Cromwell were a business match, but one also of mutual… like, maybe? Love never felt present. Affection? Kindness? Rather than focusing on what Cromwell would have been like in his earlier years, the book is written entirely from Elizabeth’s personal view, and goes into tiny detail on life for Elizabeth, such as birthing rituals of the time and the reality of marriage.

Life as a merchant’s wife is also written in tiny detail, and Elizabeth spares the reader no detail on what it was like for a woman in trade, as well as every every detail on her knowledge in wool products.

Elizabeth had to sit through adultery, arson, suitors and unfaithful staff. But Elizabeth is a woman of her time, subservient in every way and strong enough to pull through anything life gives her – after all, she had no other choice. So many novels paint Tudor women as feminists modern-day style, but Elizabeth is a servant-wife, a religious woman who had to adhere to the suffocating reality she lived in, and never questions anything. Being able to find a female character who adheres to those traits can be hard to find in any Tudor-era book, so kudos to the author.

Elizabeth was part of Cromwell’s lesser known time, one where he worked for himself and Thomas Wolsey, a far more quiet period. Elizabeth knows nothing of politics, nor seems interested in anything her husband hopes to reach for. The book is heavy on the more simple life of people in the time period, as opposed to the glamour of the court, which has been written over and over (hell, I write it myself). King Henry doesn’t matter in Elizabeth’s mind, Anne Boleyn doesn’t matter.

The book totally lives up to its name; Elizabeth was a woman in the shadows. She is just another wife of just another merchant. Cromwell hasn’t yet become the man he is destined to be, and Elizabeth is a woman trapped within the limits of her time and gender. If you love Tudor drama, this is not the book for you, but if you want a new angle on a well-used time period, then you have hit the jackpot. I must admit the ending left me feeling a bit flat and deflated, but everyone knows the sad fate of Elizabeth, dead (probably) in her thirties of sweating sickness. Elizabeth achieved no greatness and lived in the shadow of a man who also lived in the shadows of the time.

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.